Dear Duke: A Darker Duke Chapter
I think mental health challenges are inevitable for Duke student-athletes. Granted, this is probably the case for all students at all colleges, but I can only speak from the experience that I lived and saw around me. If you can get through 4 years as a Duke student-athlete without some kind of mental health issue, you are a unicorn.
I’m not trying to be negative of cynical — again, I think mental health challenges exist in most college environments. I just want to make sure student-athletes know what they are getting into. Mental health challenges can lead to essential self-reflection, self-knowledge and growth, but only if people have the right support systems to facilitate that process. Without first accepting the frequency and normalcy of mental health afflictions, student-athletes will not get the help they need.
"Mental health challenges lead to essential self-reflection, self-knowledge and growth. But only if people have the right support systems to facilitate that process."
I distinctly remember the hotel ballroom that I was sitting in when I finally took the time to look up symptoms of depression. We were on an away trip, late in my junior season. I had the entire room to myself. Rows of tables and chairs sat empty, cheap-looking chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and I was doing a recovery cycle in the Normatec, sitting on some mildly festive carpeting.
Out of the list of 10 symptoms I found on my first rudimentary search, about 9 deeply resonated. Lack of motivation, change in appetite, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, feeling worthless, etc. Tearing up, I took a deep breath and felt a strange mix of fear and relief. Fear, because it was the first time that I had allowed myself to acknowledge that I was dealing with some degree of depression. Thanks to a lot of different pressures, acknowledging that you are sad and not yourself is very different from the first time that you allow your mind to form the word depression, and associate yourself with it. Relief, because I had felt like sh*t for a very long time, and now had a more tangible idea of 1) what I was dealing with, and thereby 2) how to get better.
"Playing time was not an issue, but my happiness was."
I tore my ACL and Meniscus about halfway through my sophomore year at Duke. We were playing on Boston College’s turf field, and there was a 50/50 ball. It was truly 60/40 (not in my favor), and although I am usually a very clean defender, I was frustrated because of a bad touch I had taken seconds before. As an opposing player approached from my left side, I remember thinking f*ck it, I’m just going to hit her. I put my shoulder down and met her shoulder as I reached my left leg toward the ball. Just as my left foot planted firmly on the turf, her knee hit the outside of mine, and I felt a crunching that left me in the fetal position, clutching my knee. I remember thinking to myself, that moment of laziness is going to change your life for the next few months.
A month later, I had surgery. Three months after that, I watched from the stands as my team went on a legendary postseason run, before losing to Penn State in the NCAA Championship. Eight months after surgery, I was cleared to play in my first game back on a team trip to Beijing, China. During the recovery process, there were setbacks and days that I did not want to get out of bed, but they were rare. For the most part, I remember my recovery process being lonely but challenging in a positive way.
The summer after my sophomore year was one of my favorite times during college. I was back playing the game I loved and getting closer to my old self on the field. At the same time, I was working a flexible research internship that allowed me to practice consistent self-care. I felt as though I was through the hardest part of my ACL recovery and in the perfect place to have a great junior season. I told myself that even if I was not playing, I would work hard to earn my spot back, and be happy with whatever role I stepped into.
But the narrative I had written in my head did not continue as I expected. I was immediately handed my starting spot back in preseason, and I went on to start every game that year. Playing time was not an issue, but my happiness was. I don’t remember many moments from my junior fall. I remember it like a blurred nightmare — one that is foggy and dark and leaves you uncertain if it even happened, but with a very real heaviness in your gut and tightness in your chest.
I don’t remember a specific moment when it started, but I remember one of the first times when I realized I had a problem. I had asked one of my professors to meet with me about a poor grade I got on a paper. During some point in the conversation, I started crying and then could not stop. She told me that I needed to put less pressure on myself. I couldn’t find the words to tell her that I was not crying about the grade, but because I felt as though I had no control over my emotions. I was petrified by whatever darkness had built inside my chest and head.
In the mornings, I could not get out of bed. I had an 8:30 a.m. biology class 3 times a week, and my teammates and I would joke about the rarity of my attendance. There was never a moment that I wanted to be anywhere (soccer practice, class, hanging out with friends) except curled up in my bed, in the dark. I would move through my days from one responsibility to the next, going through the motions in a haze, only thinking about when I could get back in bed and be alone. I felt numb and heavy and tired and worthless at all times.
There were some days that I recognized my teammates needed support, but I felt as though I couldn’t provide it.
I also remember the moment that I fully committed to trying to pull myself out of my depression. Before the NCAA tournament of my sophomore year, our amazing captains organized a bonding activity. Everyone on the team had a mason jar with their name on it, and we were told to write a word or phrase that represented them on a colored piece of paper and then put it in their respective jar. By the end of the meeting, everyone had a rainbow jar filled with the reasons that their teammates loved and respected them.
The first and second times I read through the colored slips of paper in my mason jar, I cried. The first time was right after we did the activity, when I was about 3 months post-op. Many of the slips of paper read “positive” or “strong.” At the time, this felt deeply anticlimactic, because I thought, weeeee I can smile despite having a torn ACL. Suuuper meaningful. Being positive was a given for me. It was something that was easy and expected. I had seen other injured leaders on my team do the same thing, seemingly effortlessly.
The second time I read through my mason jar was around the time that I finally researched symptoms of depression. This time, every “positive” or “strong” variation felt like a dagger because I knew they used to be givens for me — something that I thought was easy and not deserving of praise. But now, those pieces of paper represented the parts of my identity that I had lost.
And then, I came across one piece of paper that read “the most supportive person on this team for me.” I didn’t remember reading it the first time I went through my jar; I must have been too caught up in my self-pity. But the second time, I held onto this little red piece of paper, and I read it over and over again. To this day, I do not know who on my team wrote it. But at that moment, I was certain that I was no longer the most supportive person to whomever had written it a year prior.
There were some days that I recognized my teammates needed support, but I felt as though I couldn’t provide it. But most days, I didn’t even have the capacity to notice how my teammates were doing. I imagined whoever had written that slip of paper still needed my support, but I had been letting them down. I decided I had to get healthy and be more supportive of every teammate. And I hoped that whoever that teammate was would forgive me.
I pulled myself out of my depression largely through writing, meditating, eating well, and allowing myself simple pleasures without judgement. I also tried to stop being judgmental of whatever state I was in. If I felt tired halfway through the day, even after 10 hours of sleep, I would curl up for a nap and forgive myself for whatever I was missing. By the end of my junior season, I started to feel a little bit better, which allowed me to perform at a higher level for the NCAA tournament.
Although I was definitely feeling better in the spring, my depression lingered. It was inflamed by the classic college cough that lasts at least a month. That cough that is not significant enough to warrant sitting out but is enough to make you a bit miserable and constantly snot rocket and cough up mucus throughout training (my teammates loved it).
That spring, my depression was most inflamed by the pressures associated with being a rising senior. Before starting the spring season, we had agreed as a team that we would try to have high energy during practice, with the hope of distracting from the grind. Unfortunately, it was only a few weeks before the energy levels dropped significantly. Our body language screamed that we did not want to be at practice, and the practices themselves were silent.
I was still in a mental fog most days, but I decided it would be beneficial for me to get out of my own head by being vocal and bringing the energy back up. Every day at training I would try to be loud, infectiously energizing, and inclusive by supporting every teammate. Part of that was getting myself through practice, but the biggest part was that I thought everyone preferred to hear someone’s voice, as opposed to the silence that otherwise fell over practice.
It was exhausting, and I hated it. I did not want to be at practice myself on most days, but I pretended I did to try to chip away at the emptiness behind the eyes of some of my teammates as they walked into the weight room or onto the field. The fall season was still fresh in my mind – my teammates valued my positivity, strength, and support, and this is how I needed to help my team.
It wasn’t until the very end of the spring, that one of my best friends on the team told me that many of my teammates thought I was being “disingenuous” and “running for captain.” I was horrified.
Looking back now, I cringe, because I get it — I was still depressed, but trying to portray myself as infectiously happy and energized. Of course that was going to come off as disingenuous if it went on for months. The “running for captain” part makes me sad to this day, because to me, it means that many of my teammates did not understand who I was as a person, nor trust my intentions.
So, this is where I painfully, but gratefully, learned two of the most important lessons about my mental health: 1) it is far more important to expend energy on self-care and getting healthy, than expending that same energy on trying to fake it, and 2) you never really know how people perceive you, so it is far more important for your actions to reflect what you feel is right, as opposed to what you think others may perceive.
" I finally started to have days where my mind was clear, my body was light, and my whole being was happy. "
The summer before my senior year, the fog of my depression really started to clear. One teammate turned into a best friend, because she deeply understood my mental state and was happy to gently exist with me despite how dark my mind was. I finally started to have days where my mind was clear, my body was light, and my whole being was happy. My foggy and dark days still popped up, but they became more and more dispersed as the summer wore on.
By the time my senior year started, I was feeling like myself. We went on to have one of the best years in program history. We broke numerous program records, including longest win streak, and were ACC regular season champions. I was awarded ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was named an All-American and Academic All-American. We did not give up a single goal in our NCAA tournament run, but we wound up losing to UCLA in penalty kicks in the Final Four.
In the winter of senior year, I was drafted 11th overall in the 2018 NWSL draft, and I played for the Washington Spirit for about a month. Then, Ashton Miller — one of my teammates from Duke — and I went abroad to play for AC Sparta. The transition to the ‘real world’ (air quotes because playing professional soccer with your best friend in Prague is not really the real world) was hard. For the first few months in the Czech Republic, I went through another period of depression. In the second half of my time in Prague, I took on a few part-time jobs including remote sustainability consulting work and shifts at a local teahouse. The added structure and purpose made my last 5 months in Prague one of the happiest points of my life.
As my time with AC Sparta came to a close, I signed a year-and-a-half contract with the Reign FC in the National Women’s Soccer League. I was surrounded by some of the best players in the world, and I felt like I had finally made it as a professional player. But after about 2 months, I slipped into another depression that looked different from anything I had experienced before. It mixed with anxiety and OCD to create intense suicidal ideation that paralyzed and debilitated me. I wound up leaving the team before the season ended, and I spent the next 8 months dysfunctional and suicidal. If you want to read more about that chapter of my mental health story, you can read about it here. Spoiler: I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing support system and I am in a really good place now, but it was a long process.
As hard as my Duke experience was at times, it still left me largely unprepared for the challenges of the real world. It is hard to prepare everyone perfectly for their lives after graduation — I get that. But conversations around the mental health of athletes and student-athletes need to be happening more often, more honestly, and with a focus on practical coping mechanisms. Mindfulness techniques that have shown me how to accept hard emotions and acknowledge their impermanence have helped me immensely. I am excited that mindfulness is becoming more mainstream and accessible for more people, at younger ages.
I am so grateful for the donation made by Danny and Nancy Katz toward the behavioral health and wellness of Duke student-athletes. I am also grateful for organizations such as Morgan’s Message and Uncut for working to tell the honest, vulnerable, and unfiltered stories of athletes. Hearing from athletes first-hand is both powerful and validating. I will be working in this space myself by cohosting The Mental Matchup podcast, which is presented by Morgan’s Message. We are launching March 9th, and we will be interviewing athletes about their mental health journeys with the hope that we can destigmatize mental health and make it just as important as physical health in sports. There is a lot of work to be done, but there are also a lot of reasons to be hopeful.
I hope that my story is a reason to be hopeful. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am planning to come out of my year-and-a-half long retirement to play for the North Carolina Courage. I am living in Chapel Hill now (I know, I’m a traitor, I’m sorry), but one of the best parts of my life is having Durham 20 minutes down the road. I miss Duke, and my family there so much. More specifically, I miss getting to see the faces of my Duke family every day — but I know I will have them throughout all of the chapters in my life. Even the dark ones.
- Schuyler DeBree
(Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Schuyler DeBree)