Emerson basketball comes together for mental health awareness games


Arthur Mansavage

The Emerson women’s basketball team leaves the court after a 73-68 win over Clark University at the Mental Health Awareness Game on Wednesday.

By Jordan Pagkalinawan, Managing Editor

In the middle of Emerson’s busy basketball season, Ava Salti, junior guard of women’s basketball, decided that both the men’s and women’s team needed a meaningful event off the court to bring them together. On Wednesday, that idea was realized with a doubleheader raising awareness for athletes’ mental health.

“It just felt like a no-brainer,” Salti said.

The games were held at the Bobbi Brown & Steven Plofker Gym in collaboration with Doc Wayne Youth Services, a Boston-based organization that provides student athletes with mental health resources and sport-based therapy.

“A professor actually sent me Doc Wayne’s information because there’s an Emerson alum on the board there,” Salti said. “What they do is perfect for what we’re trying to raise awareness for: advocating for mental health and using sports to do that.”

The games accompanied a fundraiser for Doc Wayne with a goal of $2,500—a goal which Salti says they exceeded.

“It is definitely something important for everyone, not just athletes,” first-year women’s guard Lena Hicks said. “I was really proud of Ava for spearheading it, and I was really excited to make it happen.”

A May 2022 study from the NCAA surveyed nearly 10,000 athletes on the subject of mental health. It found that while roughly 70 percent of women’s sports participants and 63 percent of men’s sports participants know where to go for their school’s mental health resources, the percentage of athletes who felt comfortable reaching out to them fell to 48 and 46 percent, respectively.

Men’s basketball guard Brendan McNamara said that one of the reasons athlete mental health is not openly discussed is because of the belief that athletes must stoically mask their emotions. However, he added that initiatives such as this one are reminders to everyone, on and off the court, that they are not alone. He also encouraged other schools and organizations to follow a similar path.

“It’s just so powerful and goes a long way, [and] shows what Emerson College is all about,” he said.

Salti believes that if the conversation around mental health becomes more normalized through open conversations, the strong bonds within the team can only be strengthened. She added that putting this together at Emerson, which emphasizes mental health advocacy, was a major step in the right direction.

“Doing something like this at Emerson—the support it’s gotten has been amazing,” she added.

McNamara agrees with Salti’s intentions.

“Doing something like this at a school like Emerson is a great step and great sign for what Emerson stands for and what the community is all about: creating an environment that is welcoming, supportive, empowering, and accepting,” said McNamara.

He added that the conversation around mental health shouldn’t be limited to players; coaches and captains leading the conversation can go a long way. For McNamara, the challenge of addressing and overcoming mental barriers is not only good in and of itself, but from a gameplay perspective, is “an integral part” of getting the most from a team and its players.

“If you can create a space where you’re very approachable—whether it’s one-on-one or in a group setting—I think that can be really powerful,” he said. “You have a lot of guys sharing honest, transparent, [and] vulnerable things.”

“Having these conversations around mental health would liberate people’s minds and allow them to enjoy what they’re doing and why they’re playing a sport at any level,” McNamara added.

Men’s basketball forward Ben Allen said that athletes should recognize they have a platform and use it responsibly to promote mental health, noting that the topic has become a more prominent conversation everywhere from the NBA to Division III.

Allen also said that collegiate athletes shouldn’t feel forced to ignore their problems and treat sports as an escape, as they may have been taught to do in the past.

“Just because you’re going through something, you don’t have to push through it and go play your sport,” he said. “Real toughness comes from being able to accept who you are and be open about it.”

Hicks echoed the same sentiment.

“You have big feelings and emotions because of your sport or stuff outside [of it],” Hicks said. “To ignore that is doing such a disservice to you as an athlete.”

Since the initiative was first introduced, conversations about mental health have grown exponentially from both teams.

Hicks has felt her teammates’ support about mental health firsthand. She recently underwent knee surgery and opened up about informing her teammates.

“It was taking a toll on my mental health because [surgery] is a pretty big thing,” she said. “They have lifted me up and encouraged me to come to them if I need to. They’ve made it very clear that they will always be there for me and always have my back. That is so incredibly impactful.”

Salti said that the conversation around mental health can go beyond awareness, encouraging players to reach out to teammates, family, and friends.

“Just being able to ask the people close to you if they’re okay,” she added. “Having the ability to ask that question. It’s not the most comfortable, but it definitely is [very] important.”

She also sent a message to her fellow Lions, reminding them, “It’s okay to not be okay.”

“Whether you drop 30 points on the court, you can go home that night and feel terrible, just because you’re a human being,” Salti continued. “It’s important to recognize that athletes struggle, that everybody struggles.”

Salti, who also plays for the women’s soccer team, hopes her efforts can expand into other sports.

McNamara, Allen, and Hicks said they were also looking to continue discussing mental health with their teammates and friends.

“One of the most important and reassuring feelings is to feel heard and feel noticed,” McNamara said. “What this initiative is doing is reminding people that everyone struggling with these things is noticed. It makes you feel more acknowledged.”

Allen said that he hopes people know it’s okay to be authentic and vulnerable.

“Every single person has something going on in their lives, whether they like to admit it or not,” he said. “What I want people to take away from this is that you’re not alone.”

Salti said that by helping organize the mental health game, she had fulfilled a mission that connected sports with other integral parts of life.

“Being able to use sports for good is something that I’ve always aspired to do, and I think it resonated with all of my teammates and all the guys on the [men’s] team,” Salti said. “At the end of the day, it’s all that any of us want to do: being able to do what we love and do it for good.”