At the end of 2020, Lila Bromberg wrote a story for Testudo Times about how Maryland football head coach Michael Locksley’s emphasis on mental health is leaving a lasting impact on the team.
“Anything I can do as far as my part as the leader of an organization of 18 to 22-year-olds that may have or may be dealing with issues and mental health issues, I owe it to our program and our players to provide the best resources available to help them be the best version of themselves,” Locksley told Testudo Times as published in Bromberg’s story. “The mental health of our players [is] at the first and foremost of our thoughts.”
Now, nearly a year later, Locksley is continuing to put the mental wellness of his players first as the team gets set to welcome No. 5 Iowa to host a Mental Health Awareness game on Friday, Oct. 1.
With Maryland football on the cusp of the AP Top 25, Iowa ranked in the top five and both teams entering the matchup 4-0, all eyes will be on the game this Friday. However, this matchup is also a platform for teams to come together and promote mental health awareness.
As a part of this game, the Terps will wear green ribbons on their helmets to promote mental health awareness and a video the team released on Twitter on Thursday in partnership with the Hawkeyes and Baribeau will be shown during the third quarter.
“It’s a great, great opportunity for Maryland football to play a big time game at home, but also a time to use a national television platform to bring light or shine light on a cause that is really, really near and dear to my heart,” Locksley said. “And that every player in my program understands and knows that how important it is to me and then to have Rachel here and Iowa also taking part in it. Really, really sends a strong message.”
As a part of this initiative, the team has partnered with the founder of I’m Changing the Narrative, Rachel Baribeau. The author and public speaker has a connection with Locksley that goes back to 2017 when they first met at the University of Alabama.
Locksley remembers when he first heard her discuss how it’s okay to “be a gladiator, still take off the mask and say, ‘look, I’m not doing okay.’”
It stuck with him and the two formed a partnership. Baribeau has spoken to the team a number of times since Locksley took over as head coach and she will be at the game, helping to promote the message that no one is alone, that no one is defective and that each person is loved and valuable.
“The thing about Maryland is the relationship I have with Coach Locksley, so there’s that. And you know, his commitment to mental health,” Baribeau said. “And the commitment is not just one day a year when I’m there, you know, 365 days a year... that’s the difference.”
On Sept. 3, 2017, Locksley’s son Meiko was shot and killed. A few years before his death, Meiko was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder which is a “chronic mental health condition characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“I made a promise to myself that from the tragedy of losing him that I would use my platform to ensure that any player I recruited, I created a safe haven for them to feel like anytime something’s going on, open-door policy, cry for help. I look for it to where they don’t even have to ask,” Locksley said.
In July of 2019, Baribeau was suffering from her own mental health struggles and nearly took her own life during a dark time following her mother’s death.
“I think sometimes you can be bonded by pain, by grief, by sadness,” Baribeau told Testudo Times. “And, so we understand each other in a much deeper way some profound sadness and so, you know, that’s, it’s, he’s very special.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2019, there were an estimated 51.5 million adults 18 or older with mental illness in the United States representing 20.6% of all United States adults.
29.4% of that group were young adults ages 18-25 and Maryland football players, who fall into that age bracket, are no strangers to the importance of checking in with their mental health.
“It definitely takes a mental toll between, especially being a student athlete, between school, football and just trying to find five minutes to have a little bit of a social life, but it definitely takes a mental toll,” punter Anthony Pecorella said. “It’s why you have to take a minute or two and just check in on yourself and make sure everything’s okay.”
Pecorella is not alone in expressing that sentiment. Following the win against West Virginia in the first game of the season, wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. touched upon the value of checking in with his mental health as the season began to pick up and in-person classes made a return.
“You just always gotta take the time, take the time to yourself and really just think about things,” Demus Jr. said. “There’s really a serious issue with people in places who don’t talk to them about that.”
Consistent with Demus Jr.’s concern that not everyone has people to speak to about their own mental health struggles, Pecorella created his Instagram account, Healthy Minds, with the mission to spread awareness about mental health.
In January 2021, a few weeks after sharing his mental health story publicly, the punter created this account. Pecorella told Testudo Times earlier this year that in 2019, he heard voices in his head telling him he would not live to see the next day, prompting him to share with his parents what he was going through.
As he continued to fight through his own mental health journey, he joined forces with Maryland cheerleader Charley Baker to create the Instagram account. A portion of the caption under the first post reads that the duo created the page “to try and help at least one person who is going through tough mental times right now and does not know who to talk to. Our DMs are always open if you want to talk.”
According to the 2019 study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 13% more females (49.7%) received treatment or counseling for their mental illness than males (36.8%).
Baribeau attributes some of this discrepancy to the generational differences between how boys were generally treated growing up.
She described a scenario of a set of twins playing in the driveway. One is a boy and the other a girl, both fall and scrape their knees. However, the reaction is different. Baribeau says oftentimes the parents pick up the girl and make sure she’s okay while telling the boy to toughen up and get back on his feet.
“I’m not blaming these parents, I certainly am not here to blame any parents. I’m saying that’s societal, that’s generational, that’s just kind of like how it is,” Baribeau told Testudo Times. “We wonder why men aren’t as likely to ask for help. It’s because it’s been ingrained in them from their childhood for most of them.”
This idea is not one that is new to some of the Maryland football players. Pecorella touched upon the challenges of being a student-athlete, specifically a male student-athlete, and expressing emotion as well as vulnerability ahead of the game.
“Especially being a male student athlete, there aren’t too many people that come out and say that they’re having struggles when there is a lot. They just don’t want to be labeled as, ‘oh they’re soft,’ or ‘they’re not... thankful for all the blessings they’ve been given which they are,” Pecorella said.
“But, as a male student athlete, it’s very tough sometimes to share your story because you’re built up to be this, so when you let your guard down a little bit, you’re not the big tough guy anymore.”
One way that Baribeau is encouraging others to let that guard down and take off their masks as she describes it is through the #IMCHANGINGTHENARRATIVE CHAIR. It’s a deep blue chair that she debuted at the Maryland field hockey game on Thursday and the launch was a success in Baribeau’s eyes as it was a vision she had been working on and pitching for the last few years.
People of all identities sat in the chair and read off from a sheet some questions that spark conversations about mental health. The mission of the chair is to help others find personal strength and reflect. At its debut, people of all ages, races, genders, backgrounds and religions had taken the time to chat with Baribeau and explored the questions.
At the field hockey game, Baribeau gave the questions sheet to Maria, an older woman working at the gate. The mental health advocate explain the mission and watched as Maria’s eyes widened and she exclaimed “Oh, this is a really great idea.”
“I don’t know why it was a grandmother that got me. I guess maybe I miss my grandmother and I miss my parents,” Baribeau said holding back tears. “But it just, you know, Maria, that grandmother, validated all the hard work, all the dreams, everything that’s happened to get that chair into fruition.”
Baribeau’s ultimate goal is to have these chairs across the country and for now, at Friday’s football game, fans can expect to find the chair on the concourse. People can stop by, have a seat and reflect on the questions. However, anyone can access the questions from anywhere on the #IMCHANGINGTHENARRATIVE website.
However, this mental health awareness game is just one piece of the larger plan when it comes to changing the narrative surrounding mental health in the Maryland football program. Locksley’s day-to-day open-door policy creates an environment that demonstrates his commitment to helping those who may struggle with their mental health.
“When a guy tears an ACL or breaks an arm, it’s visible. When a person’s brain isn’t healthy, we don’t always understand it,” Locksley said. “I think it’s up to us and people that have these types of platforms to be able to bring some awareness to such a great cause.”