Rider Athletics grapples with mental health

By Carolo Pascale

Rider men’s basketball sophomore guard Adetokunbo Bakare had a decision to make.

After a season of stress, the deterioration of his mental health and talks with Head Coach Kevin Baggett and the Rider counseling center, Bakare really only had one option. That option being to find a new home for the third time in his still young college career, this time, one that would help his mental health.

“These last couple days I’ve been really deciding how much I really want to play basketball. I’ve never had this feeling in my life,” said Bakare.

Bakare is not alone in feeling unhappy at Rider. About 38% of students at the school reported feeling neutral or unhappy.

In a March survey done by a Rider University in-depth reporting class, Rider students were asked their feelings about Rider and their experience at the school.

Only one question pertained to the student-athlete experience, that being the following: “How satisfied are you with your extracurricular experience at Rider? (clubs, organizations, sports, Greek life)”

The question spans not only student-athletes, but also clubs and Greek life at Rider. Because of how the survey data was collected, there isn’t a way to tell how many answered.

There were student-athletes, but the fact that 32.5% of 498 students rated their satisfaction a neutral three shows that there is room for improvement. Nearly 15% of students reported they were dissatisfied with extracurriculars.

Another question asked students if they were happy and if COVID-19 has affected their time here at Rider. Over 54% of students who responded rated COVID-19’s impact on their time as a three or higher, while 20.9% answered with a five.

Bakare, who joined the Broncs for the 2022-23 season, was at two other schools during the height of the pandemic. He was at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) for his freshman season, then transferred to Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, before making the return to New Jersey this season to play for Rider.

After the already stress-filled season ended, Bakare talked to Baggett about what his role would be like next season. Baggett said it wasn’t going to grow and said it would be best if Bakare went elsewhere. The news crushed Bakare and made the stress and taxation on his mental health even worse.

“It really was a shock to me,” said Bakare. “I went to do counseling and stuff like that at the counseling center here. I told them the stress it was putting on me and they said that they thought it was best for me to go because it was affecting my mental health.”

Bakare decided to enter the transfer portal on April 13, doing so via Twitter. In the post he cited his mental health as a major factor for his decision.

Bakare isn’t a one-off case. There are many other student-athletes at Rider who have had their share of mental health struggles through the pandemic and afterward. Rider Athletic Trainer and Athletics Mental Health Liaison Priya Mehrish says that there is a real problem both at Rider and worldwide.

“90% of my day actually is dealing with student-athlete mental health,” said Mehrish. “This fall was our first year back to so-called normal. You had in-person classes and sports were on their regular season track. There was a huge spike in mental health related issues and I think this is this year that we saw the actual aftermath of what COVID-19 did to these individuals.”

Mehrish described what sports psychologists call the athletic identity of an athlete and how many lost it during the pandemic. In plain terms, if someone has a high athletic identity, that means their identity as an athlete in whatever sport they play is of the utmost importance to them.

And if they lose that and it’s taken away from them, like it was during the pandemic, that person will feel like they have no meaning or identity.

“Student-athletes who had a very high athletic identity suddenly were lost because their primary reason for being at Rider was taken away from them,” said Mehrish. “A lot of our student-athletes play their sport because it is their release. It makes them forget the stress of their life and suddenly they didn’t have that, and unfortunately, that became one of the stressors.”

Now that Rider is back to a “so-called normal” as Mehrish called it, athletics has seen a massive spike in the amount of mental health related issues. Mehrish believes that this is from the loss of two years of development for students. With COVID-19 keeping many away from family, friends, sports, classrooms and many other places, the social development of students was severely affected.

Mehrish believes that being back to in-person classes, having practices, competing, and all the stress that comes with being a student athlete was overwhelming. Because of all of the issues, Mehrish said she and the counseling center were swamped and were trying to figure out what to do.

“I was not even doing my regular job as an athletic trainer because we were having so many issues,” said Mehrish. “The counseling center was just spiraling out there.”

With all of the issues that student-athletes were having, Rider and athletics decided to add Richard Felicetti, a doctoral intern from the counseling center, as an embedded athletics counselor. 

Felicetti has drop-in hours every Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the referee locker room of Alumni Gym. Athletes can visit him with no appointment necessary and speak with him if they need help or if they just need to talk to somebody about how they are feeling.

“The whole idea behind it was that at the counseling center, we realized that a lot of those who come are athletes,” said Felicetti. “We started thinking, well we do see a lot of athletes, how many athletes are we not reaching? That’s why we came up with the idea to take some of our services and implant them here at Alumni Gym.”

By having an embedded athletics counselor, student-athletes now have easier access to counseling if they need it. There are plans next academic year for Felicetti to have more hours and more days available for students to come in and talk to him.

Alongside Mehrish and Felicetti, there are other student-athletes that are trying to help create solutions for those who need help. Senior women’s soccer forward and Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) President Makenzie Rodrigues is one of them.

The Seattle, Washington, native came to Rider in the fall of 2019, just months before the pandemic started. She said that while mental health was always a big factor in sports before the pandemic, it was never stressed as heavily as it is post-pandemic.

During the lockdown, Rodrigues and the rest of the women’s soccer team made sure that they would all check in on each other and be there for whoever needed to talk.

“We had like team zooms to stay connected. Just working on things like building a community even though we were far away and through a screen,” said Rodrigues. “That was really beneficial for my mental health, still being connected to my team and knowing that I could rely on them and reach out to them.”

As president of SAAC, she helped create a mental health chair for the committee and helped organize many events to raise awareness of mental health such as handing out hotline pamphlets, partnering with mental health organizations, hosting events and having mental health awareness themed games.

“I think a lot of the things that Rider has accomplished are because students are propelling them to actually happen,” said Rodrigues. “It definitely is taking students who still care and are in positions of leadership, pushing that forward, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.”

Something else that SAAC, Rodrigues, Felicetti, Mehrish and the rest of athletics hope to have next year is the assistance of a sports psychologist. According to Mehrish, Rider has applied for two grants to be able to get the money to bring a sports psychologist to the school on a part-time basis. One of the grants is a state grant while the other is an NCAA grant that Mehrish said it is very competitive.

“We’re waiting, if not, then we’ll figure out something else,” said Mehrish. “But I feel very confident knowing that we are all on the same page. We are all committed to doing more and getting more resources. And I think that’s a start.”

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