Three Pitt students are starting a club to address mental health stigma among student athletes

By Elizabeth Primrose, Senior Staff Writer

According to Olivia Zambrio, both her favorite and the most challenging part of her role as a Morgan’s Message ambassador is sharing her own mental health story. 

“I love the idea that my story might be helping others who are also struggling, but it’s also really tough to put my story out there like that,” Zambrio, a junior neuroscience and psychology major, said. “It was a tough time that I went through and it’s not always easy to talk about, but the idea that it’s helping others, even if it’s just one other, makes it easier to do.”

As Morgan’s Message ambassadors at Pitt, Zambrino, Caroline Rusinski and Leah Faunce are starting a club to address and eliminate stigma surrounding mental health among student-athletes. Morgan’s Message is a nonprofit founded by the family and friends of Duke University lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers, who died by suicide in 2019.

According to the Morgan’s Message website, students in the ambassador program are advocates of student-athlete mental health on their campus who raise awareness about the challenges that student-athletes face. 

Zambrio ran cross country and track for Pitt during her first year and half of her sophomore year, but said she decided to step away to focus on her mental health. After leaving the sport, Zambrio said she applied to become an ambassador after she saw a post on Instagram about a Morgan’s Message dedication game at Duke University to support other student-athletes struggling with mental health.

Student-athletes are more susceptible to developing eating disorders than nonathletes, according to Amy Gooding, a clinical psychologist at the Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. Gooding said student-athletes face pressures and challenges that can trigger or contribute more to the severity of mental health issues.

“Student-athletes are often having to balance their busy practice and school schedules, manage pressures to perform on and off the field, have challenges associated with the media and peers, have to cope with injuries, experience performance anxiety or the need to please their coaches or teammates,” Gooding said.

According to Rusinski, a junior cross country and track runner at Pitt, this is the first full academic year that Pitt has had Morgan’s Message ambassadors. Rusinski said she decided to become an ambassador because she wants to stop the stigma around athletes’ mental health.

“Mental health is very important to me, and I know what it’s like to be in such a dark place,” Rusinski said. “I know what it’s like to pull yourself out of that dark place and I don’t want anyone to have to go through that alone.”

Playing in a Morgan’s Message tournament at WVU inspired Faunce, a senior club lacrosse player, to become an ambassador as well. While Faunce said she is not heavily involved in the organization, she said setting up a Morgan’s Message club at Pitt will benefit everyone from intramural sports athletes all the way to DI-level athletes.

According to both Zambrio and Ruzinski, as ambassadors they regularly attend mental health training through the program. Rusinski said she wants guest speakers and current student-athletes to talk about their experience with mental health once she and the other ambassadors officially establish the club. 

Rusinski said she wants student-athletes to know they are more than just their performance or the amount of playing time they get.

“Athletics is something you do, but it does not define you,” Rusinski said. “You are loved and cherished for your personality and who you are as an individual, not because of a time you run or how many points you score.”

According to Zambrio, she and the other ambassadors are looking for more people who would want to get Morgan’s Message at Pitt up and running. She said those who are interested should reach out to her for more information.

While Rusinski said being vulnerable can be difficult, she wants her voice and other voices to be heard as mental health advocates.

“I want my teammates to know it’s okay to cry on the start line because you’re nervous,” Rusinski said. “I want everyone to know it’s okay to ask for help.”