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Mitch Vingle: WVU athletics addresses mental hygiene

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MORGANTOWN — Let’s say you’re an athlete in peak physical condition.

You’ve worked tirelessly to be so and have made the major-college level in your sport.

You’ve even balanced the rigors of academic and athletic life. You’re transitioning into adulthood like a champ.

And then suddenly your lifelong best friend dies.

Finally, it’s all a bit too much. You feel that heretofore rock-solid foundation cracking because of the grief.

Yet you also understand the athletic culture. Walk it off. There’s no room for pain.

Until now, that is. At WVU, there’s indeed a room for those in pain. And in it sits Dayna Charbonneau, hired last month as the school’s sports psychologist with training in clinical psychology.

She’ll help with sports performance, but make no mistake: Charbonneau is there for a different reason.

“It’s more for those coping with life on a day-to-day basis and the pressures of college athletics,” said Steve Uryasz, WVU’s executive senior associate athletic director.

It’s forward thinking at its best.

“For years we’ve seen athletes — just like in the general populace — with special needs,” Uryasz said. “But, truthfully, everything has been couched in the sports psychology side. While this is partly that, Dayna is here to help with personal issues.”

Charbonneau was once a softball player at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, yet that was just a start. She completed graduate clinical work at the University of Indianapolis, served a doctoral internship at Utah State and then earned her post-doctorate and worked at the University of California-Davis before moving to Morgantown.

“I’m liking it a lot,” Charbonneau said of WVU. “I wanted to be closer to home. It’s still a seven-hour drive to the Toronto area, but I wanted to be on this side of the country. I’m enjoying the atmosphere on football game day and how friendly and welcoming everyone has been.”

But back to her job.

“It’s infusing psychology into the athletic environment so it’s more accessible for student-athletes,” Charbonneau said. “It helps take away stigmas associated with mental health services. It can be easily accessed just like sports nutrition or medicine or academic services. It’s a trend nationwide to bring more psychologists in-house.”

Other schools like Purdue, Wisconsin, Stanford, Oregon State, Minnesota, Nevada, Maryland and Oklahoma State also have such providers.

“New research has shown student-athletes might be more at-risk for mental health concerns compared to their non-athletic peers,” Charbonneau said. “There are unique demands and expectations with their schedules on top of all going on as a college student. It’s really helpful for them.”

Indeed, the pressures on college athletes are at an all-time high, especially when you throw in add-ons like social media.

“Especially with the high-profile athletes who are even more in the media,” Charbonneau said.

Her job, however, will include more than helping athletes deal with expectations and pressures.

“It will include a wide range of things,” Charbonneau said. “On the low end, they can just feel off and not feel right. Maybe they just don’t feel like themselves anymore. They’re noticing it’s impacting them whether it’s socially, academically, performance-wise, whatever.

“It can also be on the other end, if they’ve been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or have had suicidal thoughts. All of that or anything in-between. If a big stressor comes up in life, like parents getting divorced or a partner breaking up with them. If they need to talk about it, I’m here. If they’re coping with injuries or substance abuse or eating concerns, all are fair game.”

Charbonneau has specialized training in dealing with eating/body image concerns. Yet she can also help if all is going well, if an athlete would like to ramp up mental performance strategies and enhancement.

“I’m available to do both, but predominantly my role will be the mental health stuff because we have a sports sciences department at the university that trains student-athletes in sports psychology,” she said.

And so far so good.

“The student-athletes have definitely been using me,” Charbonneau said. “My very first day I was busy. I’ve been meeting with most of the coaches and teams so they can get to know me and know how to access me. Everyone has been open to it. Right now I’m building relationships and trust. I’m trying to be as visible as I can.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering, both men and women have signed on.

“It’s pretty equal right now,” Charbonneau said. “I’ve been pretty surprised and happy about that. It’s been a variety of teams and a variety of concerns. It’s been pretty great and I haven’t been here a month yet.”

Uryasz said the NCAA has been making mental health a priority. Charbonneau said hiring in-house athletic psychologists is becoming “a trend.”

It doesn’t matter what prompted the action though.

What matters is help has arrived for those in need.

Let’s hope it’s promoted within the department. Let’s hope that trust of Charbonneau is earned. And let’s hope those most needing help get it.

Contact Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827 or mitchvingle@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @MitchVingle.

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