Karen Lin, Contributing Photographer

On Monday, Yale’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee officially launched the YUMatter initiative after its soft launch in September, which offered wellness workshops for student-athletes that have been held throughout the fall semester in collaboration with the Good Life Center.

This initiative is the first of many YUMatter projects headed by SAAC president and rower Hannah Johns ’22 and Helena Ware ’23, a member of the sailing team and chair of the wellness and mental health subcommittee of the SAAC. The eight wellness workshops cover three topics: “Your Student-Athlete Identity,” “Coping with Circumstances Beyond Your Control” and “Coping with Loss.” Good Life Center Woodbridge fellow Alexa Vaghenas has chaired the workshops, and the final two sessions will take place on Oct. 27 and Nov. 2.

“In my personal experience, we had higher participation than I anticipated,” Johns said. “Especially at the beginning, we had a really good number of student-athletes get involved with those workshops. I did participate in one and I found it really nice, very grounding. It was in a group of student-athletes on Zoom, and I found that very comforting to see people who were looking for the same help as I was looking for.”

The workshops were originally meant to be in person but have moved online because of COVID-19. Nevertheless, both Ware and Johns said they enjoyed being led by Vaghenas in “Coping with Circumstances Beyond Your Control” workshops and working through exercises and meditations with the group.

The biggest hurdle for the workshops, Ware said, has been trying to get people to sign up and raise awareness about these opportunities for student-athletes. According to Johns, the number of people attending the workshops has averaged around five per session. Currently, athletes can still sign up for the final two workshops on the SAAC website by filling out a Google form.

Ware said that another challenge could be overcoming some of the additional stigmas that male student-athletes can experience when talking about mental health issues. In the workshop that she attended, Ware noted that there was an even split between white participants and participants of color, but all attendees were women.

“It’s far more accepted as a woman to express your emotions than it is for men, and I think there’s this overarching idea that it’s still not okay for men to express any sort of emotion other than stoic or angry,” Griffin Wilson ’24, a member of Yale men’s lacrosse and the wellness subcommittee, said. “In order to go to the events that YUMatter has or to those online sessions, you need to be able to be vulnerable, and I think for men in particular, they struggle to be vulnerable because they were told from a young age that vulnerability means weakness, not strength.”

Male participants were in attendance at Johns’ session, but she said that the workshops did tend to skew female. The wellness subcommittee is evenly split between men and women, and this has helped them draft better ways to communicate with student-athletes going forward.

Ware also said that mental health resources available to Yale students are not always easy for student-athletes to utilize.

“I personally remember that I was on a waitlist for a therapist for almost six weeks because they couldn’t find a time in my schedule where I could meet with a therapist,” Ware said. “They kept being like ‘Come at this time,’ and I [told them] I cannot miss a competition.”

Before becoming the SAAC president, Johns was also president of the wellness subcommittee. Johns said she has had similar experiences to Ware, which inspired her to make YUMatter one of the cornerstones of her administration.

During her first year at Yale, Johns struggled with insomnia, something she had never experienced before. She remembers being tired from training and studying all day and going to bed early but still struggling to find restful sleep.

“I had terrible insomnia,” Johns said. “I had no idea what was going on. I did not know why I could not sleep. I am so tired all the time; all I do is workout, do my homework, and try to go to bed at like 10 o’clock and I’m up until 2. It really took a huge toll on my mental health, and I did not tell anybody. I would show up to lift looking gray and felt terrible, awful, and anxious all the time. Even though I had a FroCo, I had my teammates, I had my coaches, I still pushed through it … alone.”

Johns ended up sharing her experience with a teammate, who told her she was experiencing the same thing. After that, Johns said that things got much better for her because she knew that she was not alone.

Both Ware and Johns wanted to share their stories and promote YUMatter to help other student-athletes who may be experiencing similar problems.

Beginning the week of Nov. 1, student-athletes will be able to sign up for one-on-one sessions with Vaghenas on the same SAAC website as the workshops. These sessions will allow student-athletes to discuss their mental health in a more private setting.

Johns and Ware are also working on a social media campaign to help promote these initiatives to the student-athlete community, and they ask interested individuals to visit the SAAC website and look out for messages from their team’s SAAC representatives for more updates.

There are currently conversations surrounding making some YUMatter initiatives — such as mental health training for coaches and SAAC representatives — mandatory in order to ensure that these problems can be addressed before they become crises.

Student-athletes can sign up for the last Wellness Workshop, which will take place on Nov. 2 and will address the topic “Coping with Circumstances Beyond Your Control,” on the SAAC website.


Eugenio Garza García | eugenio.garzagarcía@yale.edu