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MHSAA and ‘be nice.’ partner to support stronger mental health for prep athletes

be nice.

Teens are reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety, and the suicide rate in the U.S. reflects the crisis. The Michigan High School Athletic Association and the West Michigan-based non-profit 'be nice.' want to help.

As conversations surrounding the mental health of high school athletes are happening across the United States, many are wondering why it took this long.

Students are working through mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, leading Michigan high schools to seek solutions to help. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, suicide is is the second leading cause of death among indivduals ages 10 to 24 in the U.S.

Another CDC report revealed 13 percent of American high school girls attempted suicide, with 30 percent seriously considering it, between 2011-2021.

This concerns the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. The two organizations have teamed up to try to help Michigan high school athletes get the tools they need to help when they are in a mental health crisis.

The first step is openly discussing the issue.

Geoff Kimmerly, the director of communications for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said he sees change happening to remove the stigma of mental health discussions. The change reminds Kimmerly of the change in regarding concussions, which became a mandated injury report to the MHSAA by schools eight years ago.

“I think things with mental health are probably similar,” Kimmerly said. “I think a lot of people are afraid to say, ‘I have some thoughts I'm not comfortable with, I have some feelings I'm not comfortable with, and I need some help,’ and so I think that’s a major challenge.”

Not many people understand that challenge better than Christy Buck, the executive director and founder of be nice., a flagship program that works with the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, advocating for mental health education and suicide prevention.

be nice. has worked with the MHSAA for the past six years, spreading its message in hopes of reducing some of that stigma which surrounds teen mental health. Buck used her 36 years of experience of working in mental health advocacy to start be nice., which stands for “notice, invite, challenge, and empower”.

The first step of the action plan is notice, realizing the certain risk factors individuals may be experiencing that could contribute to mental health struggles, as well as noticing changes in people's behavior.

“It’s the pressure of the sport, it’s the grades,” Buck said, referencing the variety of risk factors. “There’s tons of risk factors that people experience. And on top of that all, then I need to be able to notice and recognize the change in someone's behavior.”

Buck believes there are more risk factors today that are currently put high school students and athletes in jeopardy.

“With athletes, we know that there has been a rise in mental health challenges. One reason for the rise is there is a whole lot of other things going on in their lives that is affecting them, so they have more pressure on them,” Buck said.

Since the MHSAA and be nice. joined forces six years ago, 30,000 middle and high school coaches throughout the state have been required to take a 15-minute training course. The message remains consistent from year to year, trying to plant the seeds of best practices to grow awareness and help.

Not changing the message was done on purpose by Buck. It’s an evidence-based plan, based on research conducted by Grand Valley State University over three years to assess impact. The research also concluded that the be nice. program has created positive culture changes in schools where they are present, and developed students' knowledge towards mental health resources.

This year, be nice. teamed up with MHSAA’s Student Advisory Council, which is made up of 16 athletes from eight different regions across the state with the goal of getting peer’s to influence one another.

“These student athletes became super passionate about the project when they were educated, and they are going to be the deliverers of the message this year,” Buck said.

As the dialogue on the mental health of high school athletes evolves, collaborations like be nice. and the MHSAA emphasizes the commitment to prioritize the well-being of athletes both on and off the field.

“At the root of everything it is about treating everybody with respect and dignity everyday, because it could save a life.” Buck said.

be nice., with help from the MHSAA, is now working with the athletic associations for Virginia, Alaska, and New Jersey, with the ultimate goal of reaching all 50 states in order to continue the discourse surrounding the mental health of high school athletes.

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