Trigger warning: self harm, suicide.
On our recent Mental Health in Student Sport webinar in association with Student Minds, we had the pleasure of listening to Ben Lawson, a student and American Football player at Warwick University. Here, we speak to him about his experiences as a mental health advocate, and how he’s spearheading initiatives benefiting the American Football community and beyond.
In 2019, Ben was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia. “Suicidal thoughts and self harm were a regular thing for me in my darkest months”. He highlights that he was almost “thrown into opening up about mental health”, in a sporting environment. “Being part of a water-polo team, it was inevitable that someone would ask questions - it’s not something that can be hidden by wearing a hoodie and saying I was cold”.
Initially, Ben was apprehensive - “the stigma in water polo is that you’re big and hard as nails and that nothing can ever break you down.” However, his teammates were insistent on asking him what was wrong, and Ben credits them as being “hugely instrumental in helping me be open about my mental health.”
In his final year at school, and as captain of the water-polo team, Ben instilled a sense of community, and ensured that his lasting legacy with the team would be a sense of family; “I wanted people who played to know that your teammates were so much more than that - they were also your family.”
However, moving to university brought new challenges. Ben highlights that the new environment of university was incredibly overwhelming, and that living away from home for the first time caused his mental health to take a tumble. “I was really missing the sense of community - I felt very isolated with regards to my mental health - I had no one to talk to.”
After being encouraged to try an American Football session, Ben was hooked: “it became a great outlet for getting out the stresses of everyday life.”
Within minutes of going to his first session, Ben knew he could fit into the community, and trust the people on his team. “I felt like I had my family again - I was able to be more open about my mental health which was instrumental in my university life.”
At the beginning of lockdown, Ben set up initiatives to ensure players' mental health was not forgotten. “We started a group for our American Football team called ‘the Mindful Wolf’, it was designed to start a proper mental health organisation, for people to open up, talk about what they were going through, and have a sense of routine.” Ben highlights how each week they would go through a different meditative technique, such as ‘box breathing’ and yoga, where the whole team would get involved.
On Thursdays, the American Football squad introduced ‘Reflect, Avoid, Neglect’, where if people wished, they could open up about anything they wanted to just to get things off their chest. “Having those sessions where I could just talk into a camera and not think about anything else became instrumental in how I dealt with the circumstances, and how I managed to keep my mental health in a relatively good place.”
Currently, Ben and his teammates are working to expand these initiatives across different sports at Warwick, alongside the Lifting the Lid campaign, aiming to break down the stigma of male mental health.
For his final thoughts, Ben leaves us with the ‘ask, then ask again policy’; “this is something I’ve always been a champion of - ask them how they’re really doing. It’s a subtle way to break that subconscious stereotype in a sport where people aren’t normally seen to be opening up. It’s all about creating trust and a safe space for people to open up about whatever they may be going through.”