Bryan Cupito experienced athletic failure for the first time in his life as a starting quarterback for the Gophers football team in 2004. His team dropped back-to-back games after a 5-0 start, Cupito lost confidence, outside criticism followed and he began over-thinking routine fundamentals.

“Mentally,” he said Monday, “I was just a nightmare.”

Cupito never considered seeking help from a sports psychologist. He didn’t even know if the school employed one. Besides, mental health wasn’t a topic people discussed freely back then.

Progress in this area is a wonderful thing. Last year, the Gophers athletic department surveyed all 600-plus athletes and found that between 30% and 40% of them have used the department’s sports psychology services.

“I was kind of hoping it would be even just a little bit higher,” said Joi Thomas, senior associate athletic director who oversees health and performance.

Why higher?

“I just want to make sure the accessibility and the availability is there,” she said.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren took an important step in accomplishing that objective leaguewide by unveiling a new initiative in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month.

 

“This is not an easy time to be a young person in society with all the distractions and pressure and issues involving anxiety and depression and how many likes you have on social media.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren

 

Warren formed a cabinet that consists of representatives from all 14 conference schools that will collaborate on ways to support athletes’ mental health. The former Vikings executive also announced that all Big Ten athletes and coaches will receive free access to a mental health app called Calm.

In a phone interview Monday, Warren said his passion for mental health awareness stems from an accident when he was 11 years old in which a car slammed into his bicycle, leaving him with serious injuries to his legs.

“Not one time did anyone ever talk to me about my mental health and wellness,” Warren said. “As I look back, that was something that I probably would have been better if I would have had some professional help.”

Warren has made mental health a cornerstone of his agenda as commissioner. The COVID-19 pandemic only reinforces the importance of providing athletes with necessary services to deal with anxiety, depression or other threats to their well-being.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that college athletes are still just young adults — teenagers even — dealing with all sorts of new experiences and challenges. School, relationships, finances, social media. They also face the pressure of competition on top of that, sometimes on a large stage, in an era of social media scrutiny and judgment. That’s a lot to process.

Imagine walking across campus or into a classroom the morning after a bad game. Or checking Twitter after a costly interception or late turnover. They need a strong support system on campus to help navigate hard times or cope with more serious conditions. No one should feel the need to keep things in hiding.

University of Tennessee quarterback Brian Maurer shared on social media last week that he suffers from depression and anxiety and had planned to take his life. Maurer later told ESPN.com that he hoped to bring awareness to mental health and intends to seek treatment.

“This is not an easy time to be a young person in society with all the distractions and pressure and issues involving anxiety and depression and how many likes you have on social media,” Warren said.

New University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel has made mental health a priority for her administration, referring to it as an “epidemic” on college campuses. The Gophers football team devoted its home game against Maryland last season to mental health awareness.

“We just know more [about the issue],” said Thomas, one of two Gophers employees on Warren’s new cabinet.

Cupito shared a glimpse how things can spiral. He said he never felt depressed. Just kind of lost as he dealt with self-doubt for the first time. He sought advice from his older brother.

“For the first time in my life, I lost confidence,” he said. “I fell apart, and I could not recover until the season ended. I had never been through that before.”

He finished his career as a three-year starter and set a program record for passing yards. He is happy to hear that mental health awareness has become a priority for college athletics.

“There’s no stigma,” Cupito said. “It’s more to help you out and get you through tough times.”