Lifting the stigma: Student-athletes emphasize mental health awareness through The Hidden Opponent

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Sports have long carried the stereotype of players “toughing it out.” Demonstrating strength and not letting adversity get in the way of success on the field is more important than anything else. 

As a result of these expectations, many collegiate athletes around the country struggle with issues concerning personal wellbeing.

The NCAA conducted a study earlier this year which found that less than half of collegiate athletes said they would feel comfortable seeking a wellness provider. Issues of anxiety and depression are extremely prevalent throughout college athletics and manifest themselves in tragic ways.

In response to this growing crisis, current and former Pitt student-athletes are hoping to redefine the student-athlete experience by providing their peers a much-needed medium of openness, community and self-expression.

This medium comes in the form of The Hidden Opponent — a new on-campus community at Pitt.

The organization describes itself as a “non-profit advocacy group that raises awareness for student-athlete mental health and addresses the stigma in sports culture.” Founded by former University of Southern California volleyball player Victoria Garrick, the organization has progressively expanded to college campuses around the country since its establishment in 2019.

Garrick opened up about her personal struggles with mental health in a 2017 TED Talk, where she discussed not even knowing about her depression while attending USC.

“I battled depression for half of a year without even knowing I was,” Garrick said. “I said ‘put on this face and just fake it’. But after a while, I couldn’t fake it.” 

The Hidden Opponent recently accepted applications from potential student-athlete ambassadors at schools around the country.

One of those ambassadors is Pitt sophomore lacrosse player Kiara Feibusch.

Feibusch committed to Pitt during her junior year of high school — something she dreamed of since picking up a lacrosse stick for the first time in second grade.

While Feibusch knew that playing a Division I sport would be a competitive jump from the high school level, her tallest task was more profound than athletics.

Feibusch’s college lacrosse experience was clouded by off-the-field hardships — troubles that weren’t necessarily obvious to the average observer.

“Coming in, I knew it was going to be tough, especially since I had other stuff going on in my life,” Feibusch said. “I was aware of my support system here, but I didn’t take advantage of it. I stayed in the dark a lot.”

While dealing with these issues on her own, Feibusch began to realize that continuing to mask her mental health was detrimental.

So, she wrote about it.

Feibusch’s piece on The Hidden Opponent’s website garnered support across social media — a response that caught her somewhat off-guard. Additionally, the feedback she received from people ignited a will to continue her work in mental health activism.

“It was incredible,” Feibusch said. “After writing that story, I think I want to go into a profession along the lines of mental health so I can use my experiences to help people. It was very emotional when I was getting that feedback.”

Since telling her story, Feibusch said she is doing as well as she ever has, and once again loves her sport. Feibusch credits the culture created by Pitt lacrosse coach Emily Boissonneault and her team for fostering an environment where she feels at home.

“I dreaded going to practice because I had so much going on. If you compare it to now… I have not had as much playing as I did last weekend [in the scrimmage],” Feibusch said. “[Coach Boissonneault] cares about each and every person on the team, and that reflects with us. There are no cliques, everyone likes each other.”

At The Hidden Opponent’s first meeting Sept. 22 on Pitt’s campus, Feibusch was accompanied by her lacrosse teammates, who came to support their friend. 

“Once I eventually opened up and utilized that support system, it was so much better. The environment that my coach has made is incredible. She really cares,” Feibusch said. “Even if someone doesn’t have something going on, I think your teammates going there is another sense of support. You know that there’s other people who care.”

Like Feibusch, there are others with nuanced stories of how playing a sport in college has profoundly affected them on a human level.

Prior to stepping away from Pitt’s track and field team, junior Liv Zambrio rode this same rollercoaster of having her dreams come true, only to realize that the reality wasn’t what she imagined.

Zambrio hadn’t even thought of running in college until her senior year of high school, when she got a surprise DI letter. 

“I went up to my coach and I was like, is this real or is this a scam?” Zambrio said. “I would have never even thought I could run in college, let alone at a school like Pitt.”

For a while, Zambrio’s dream was a reality. She was competing in meets across the country alongside longtime idols of hers — something she would’ve never imagined just a few years prior.

“It was very unreal,” Zambrio said. “During my first meet with other big DI schools, I was in complete awe.”

However, Zambrio’s story is that of many others. Balancing a full academic schedule with the pressure and expectations of being a DI athlete became too much to handle.

“I think I did fall out of love with [running],” Zambrio said. “It felt more like I had to be doing it because of all the pressure and not because I wanted to.”

Since moving to her post-competitive life, Zambrio has found a new purpose in The Hidden Opponent. She believes that organizations like THO, along with additional resources such as team therapists, are fundamentally necessary in order to adequately care for student-athletes.

“The stigma against mental health is still very relevant, especially at bigger schools like this. People have their dreams come true, they’re playing at this big D-I school, but they’re not allowed to be okay,” Zambrio said. “The Hidden Opponent is trying to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay.”

Zambrio is still in the process of falling back in love with running. Even though she no longer competes at Pitt, Zambrio attends meetings hosted by The Hidden Opponent to tell her story.

Feibusch, Zambrio and many others have embraced The Hidden Opponent as a community that they can lean upon in times of distress. The organization has given a voice to the many athletes who felt as though they didn’t have one, allowing for them to speak their truth in hopes of opening up the conversation about mental health in athletics.

With over 400 student-athlete ambassadors across 200 different schools around the world, The Hidden Opponent and the athletes involved are redefining what “strength” truly means.