Content Warning: This article includes discussions of sensitive topics such as suicide.
Moriah Johnson still remembers slowly collapsing down the side of a tree outside of Woodworth Complex, crying on the phone with her mother.
Around 160 miles away from her home in Westerville, Ohio, Johnson struggled with homesickness throughout her freshman year at Ball State University. While this moment stuck out more than others, Johnson spent most of her days as a freshman crying.
“I would go walk from my dorm to the library, sit outside at night and cry,” Johnson said.
During this “period of sadness,” the junior criminology major said she tried to distract herself by joining mental health clubs at Ball State, visiting her family nearly every weekend, burying herself in Freida McFadden books of the romance or thriller variety and drawing the latest Pinterest cartoon trends in a notebook.
When she wasn’t doing any of those things, her negative emotions took over.
“When I'm sad, I like to sit in my room, and I don't like to do anything,” Johnson said. “I'll just stare out the window.”
To make things even harder, shortly into her time at Ball State, she was diagnosed with ADHD.
“It always feels like my mind is in like 1100 different directions,” Johnson said.
When she first began dealing with the disorder, Johnson said she constantly lost her keys and forgot the shoes she needed for Ball State track and field practices.
With a strict and busy schedule as a student-athlete, Johnson had trouble finding time to balance her sport, academics, social life and more. It was an ongoing process that began to take a deeper effect on her mental state and even affected her performance on the track and in the classroom.
To try and help her focus on both sport and school, Johnson began taking prescribed Adderall.
“It made it 10 times worse,” Johnson said.
She said it feels like she is going to war with herself.
“I can't talk. I can't move. I can't think. I just freeze up,” she said.
Johnson doesn’t feel like her disorder prevents her from completing any tasks, but did admit it takes her longer to do some things. While she often needs coaches to repeat instructions so she will follow through on them, those on staff are understanding.
“It’s not like I can change myself from [having] ADHD,” Johnson said.
However, after Olivia Huffman, a former Ball State sports psychologist, theorized Johnson’s performance anxiety may be her body’s way of preparing itself for a big event, Johnson hasn’t struggled nearly as much as she did before.
Last season, Ball State track and field athletes worked with two sports psychologists, something Johnson said wasn’t available to those in the program during her freshman season. Huffman said at least five of Ball State’s 13 sports work with sports psychologists, and she was one of many who floated from program to program rather than being assigned to just one.
Angelina Ramos, Ball State cross country and track/field assistant coach, is someone Johnson said she looked to for a source of support during the worst of her struggles. Ramos said she tries to cultivate a culture of belonging and authenticity within the programs she coaches.
“You have to let them know that it's okay to fail. It's okay to make mistakes,” Ramos said. “You don't have to hide in secrecy or shame because you made a mistake.”
Ramos said the biggest thing she tries to do as a coach to underscore the importance of mental health is showing an invested interest in the people behind the athletes. She places a higher importance on remembering what athletes’ favorite foods are instead of what their best run times are.
“Something our whole staff tries to do really well is just acknowledging growth in mindset and growth in actions as much as on the performance field as well,” Ramos said.
Not only did Johnson confide in a sports psychologist and her coaching staff, but she eventually began seeing an outside counselor.
“I kept canceling my appointment over and over and over and over until I finally went,” Johnson said. “When I did, it felt way better. I felt like I should have done this a long time ago.”
As a former swimmer at the University of Kentucky, Huffman had her own struggles with mental health. Her biggest struggle, despite being the top swimming recruit in her home state of Louisiana, was imposter syndrome. While Huffman had high school accolades, she didn’t feel like she belonged in a Power-5 program.
After struggling with mental health for a year and a half, her eventual solution, as it was for Johnson, was to seek help.
“It’s scary to be vulnerable,” Huffman said. “I thought I had to be perfect and I couldn't make mistakes.”
Having met routinely with a psychologist for years, Huffman feels people should treat a meeting with a mental health professional the same way a yearly doctor’s visit is scheduled.
“Showing vulnerability is the biggest strength you could ever have in sport,” Huffman said. “You cannot reach your highest potential if you don't address [your] mental health.”
After weeks of Johnson spending nights during her freshman year staring out her dorm room window and crying, she Johnson said friends and teammates began to notice. They began asking her to join them in simple tasks like going to the store or out to dinner.
One night that stuck out to Johnson was an evening outing to Indianapolis where the group sang karaoke together. Johnson said she went from feeling like she couldn’t have fun to finding happiness in her experiences with others.
“I realized I didn't have to isolate myself,” she said.
When she first came to Ball State, Johnson said she didn’t want to speak out about her mental health struggles. Now in her third year in Muncie, Johnson wants to show younger athletes it’s possible to achieve their lofty goals while going through a mental trial.
While the worst of Johnson’s struggles were during her freshman year, she said they bled over into her sophomore season when she developed tendonitis in her knee.
Johnson felt the mental aspect of an injury is more difficult than the physical recovery. For her, the rehab and recovery didn’t cause any physical pain, but standing aside and watching her teammates compete rather than doing so alongside them is what hurt the most.
“You feel helpless; there's really nothing you can do,” Johnson said. “You just have to wait it out.”
Huffman said many athletes struggle with mental health when dealing with an injury because of the fear of losing their “athlete identity”. This is otherwise known as the section of that person who is fully wrapped up in practices, games, and all things involved with their sport.
She said this can lead to athletes experiencing feelings of grief, anxiety, depression, loss and more if their identity is fully consumed by their life as an athlete. That’s why Huffman always encourages those she works alongside to explore their other identities outside of sport.
“You're more than just a student-athlete, you're human first and foremost,” Huffman said.
Ramos does the same, trying to help find ways for her athletes to incorporate each of their identities together as it pertains to athletics.
“We all have a whole bunch of different identities and labels, but you're still the architect of your story,” Ramos said.
Once the outdoor track and field season began her sophomore season, Johnson’s mental health began to take a positive turn. She said something as simple as getting away from campus while traveling to away meets helped her find happiness. So did the success she had on the track, as Johnson helped lead the Cardinals to a Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship in 2022.
Ramos emphasized even though athletes may have success in their sport, that doesn’t always translate to happiness in their personal lives. This past season, she said multiple members of the track and field program were struggling with the recent loss of family members, some dealing with suicidal thoughts, some dealing with domestic violence issues, some dealing with homesickness and more.
“If that happened to one person, it happened to the whole team,” Ramos said. “[We’re] letting the message get out that it's okay to not be okay.”
Despite these struggles, not only did the Cardinals win their conference title, but finished with the fourth-highest cumulative GPA in the nation.
However, the biggest turning point for Johnson came this past summer when she got a job working with children at a summer camp. Now, Johnson is the happiest she has been since high school. When she looks back at the journey on the way towards positive mental health, she knows the process wasn’t linear.
“It was a roller coaster,” Johnson said. “Up and down, up and down.”
School, cry, baseball, repeat
In 2017, Carson Lydon was an eighth grader in Eugene, Oregon. At the time, he felt his calling was to play baseball.
It was around noon on Valentine’s Day when Lydon heard his name called over the intercom during English class. At first, he thought he was in trouble, but when he walked into the principal’s office to see the administrator and his mother crying, he knew it was something much more serious.
Will Manstrom-Greening, a senior in high school at the time and lifelong friend of Lydon’s, committed suicide earlier that morning.
“I was in shock, I was confused,” Lydon said. “I used to go swimming in the Embassy Suites pool with him.”
While Manstrom-Greening was four years Lydon’s senior, the two played baseball together as children because Lydon always played with older age groups. Lydon described Manstrom-Greening as the smartest student he had ever met and someone who was successful in everything he pursued. Manstrom-Greening was adopted and had multiple siblings, including a brother who is the same age as Lydon.
However, Manstrom-Greening never expressed any mental struggles with Lydon.
“He was the kind of guy that had the biggest smile in the room,” Lydon said.
As he processed the grief that goes along with the loss of a friend, Lydon started blaming himself. Lydon didn’t think he was there for Manstrom-Greening enough and wondered if there was anything he could have done.
“I had a lot of times where I thought it would be better if I was gone,” Lydon said. “I hated who I was. I thought I was a fat, ugly, depressed kid from Eugene, Oregon.”
Lydon called the months that followed the worst time of his life, a time when he felt more alone than ever. In the thick of his battle, Lydon remembered a specific night he drove his ATV to the top of a hill on his family’s ranch.
Once he parked, he let all of his emotions out, something routine. However, as he looked up at the stars with a Vance Joy song playing in the background, Lydon felt like he heard a word from God telling him, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’
He began to look for help. Eight months and one day from the date of Manstrom-Greening’s suicide, Lydon and a group of over 100 others participated in an Out of Darkness Walk.
It was on that day Lydon began to think about pursuing what he felt was his new calling: bringing awareness to suicide prevention. A year after his close friend’s death, Lydon founded A World Free of Suicide.
Just as his mission became a reality toward the end of his freshman year of high school, another suicide rocked Lydon and the community. This time, it was Christine Tofte, the mother of a close friend.
The same emotions that attacked Lydon when he lost Manstrom-Greening attacked him again.
He fell into a cycle of what he called, “School, baseball, cry, repeat.” However, it didn’t take a transformative experience for him to make positive progress.
The first major event A World Free of Suicide held was a community baseball game in honor of Tofte’s memory a month after her death.
“It was better to start chasing after helping people instead of hurting myself,” Lydon said.
Lydon, a sophomore political science major and Ball State baseball pitcher, recently transferred to Muncie after playing one season at the University of Oregon, his hometown college.
Despite living over 2,000 miles away from the non-profit’s origin, Lydon is looking to continue A World Free of Suicide’s impact in Muncie.
“I don’t know how someone that’s died by suicide has felt, but I know what it’s like to be close,” Lydon said. “It’s really shitty.”
More than an athlete
Annie Rauch has been playing basketball since she was in preschool. The sport not only provides Rauch an escape from the struggles outside of athletics but structure for her life too.
Throughout her time in middle and high school, Rauch began to be purely labeled by her athletic ability and passion. Despite what basketball means to her, Rauch said she didn’t like being known only for what she did in her sport.
“I feel like I'm more than just a basketball player,” Rauch said. “In the grand scheme [of things], this is just a part of my life. I'm so grateful for everything that basketball has given me, but it's just basketball.”
A graduate student dietetics major and Ball State women’s basketball key, Rauch expressed difficulty in separating Annie the basketball player from Annie the person. During the season, Rauch said it’s hard to open her mind and think about anything other than the next game or practice. What keeps her from feeling like a “basketball robot” is doing routine tasks like vacuuming, going to the grocery store, cooking, baking and even sleeping.
Like Rauch, Ramos struggled with her identity as an athlete too. While in high school, Ramos said even though she was involved in nearly every club the school offered and was near the top of her class academically, her identity was in sport.
When she battled stress fractures throughout her freshman and sophomore seasons as a cross country athlete at Florida State University, she began to struggle with her purpose. As time went on, Ramos discovered her love for coaching by helping her coaches out during practices she couldn’t compete in.
She began to volunteer with an on-campus organization that focused on researching and donating money toward cancer survivors. Ramos began to find her identity outside of sport.
“The hard thoughts are still there, I just don't have to focus on them. I don't have to act on them. I don't have to give them weight. I know how to drown them out. I know how to lean into this positive self-talk over here,” Ramos said.
While she struggles with homesickness even after five years away from Hilliard, Ohio, Rauch said her biggest mental health struggle is anxiety.
Like the track/field program, Ball State’s women’s basketball team also has sports psychologists who work with athletes, although Rauch said it’s not mandatory; the athlete has to reach out and ask for help, something she admitted she hasn’t done enough.
“I don't want to admit that I can't do something by myself,” Rauch said.
As was the case with Rauch, Johnson and Huffman, Ramos said many of the athletes she works with have trouble voicing their struggles.
“Sometimes [athletes] get into the bad habit of thinking their pain isn’t worthy enough of voicing it,” Ramos said. “We cannot have [a] hierarchy of pain.”
When she was at Florida State 15 years ago, Ramos said the university offered mental health resources to athletes, but the stigma surrounding the subject had not yet changed. Instead, seeking help was seen as something people did if they had reached their breaking point or if they were “crazy.”
“There are monochromes of gray,” Ramos said. “You're not just stamped ‘Healthy,’ or ‘Down and out struggling,’ or ‘Healed means you're always healed.’ It doesn't mean that nothing's ever going to rattle you or trigger you ever again.”
Throughout her time at Ball State, Rauch said she has seen the negative stigma surrounding the topic of mental health change to a more open conversation. Even her own view on speaking out about mental health has changed.
“You don't want to have to see something horrible happen for people to take it seriously,” Rauch said.
When Rauch came to Muncie, she said she saw things in black and white and wasn’t exposed to many different groups of people or ways of thinking prior to her enrollment at Ball State. Over the following four years, Rauch said she has grown to realize it’s okay not to take everything in life so seriously, helping with her perfectionist traits as well.
Rauch described her freshman self as “painfully awkward”, and said being around a diverse group of people at Ball State has helped her come out of her shell.
“For a long time, I would not lean into being a little bit awkward or not wanting to go out [and] make friends,” Rauch said. “Once you just realize who you are and you settle with it, then you can start working on things.”
Now a large aspect of what makes up “Annie the person,” being more open about mental health is something she wants to transfer to her parents and extended family.
“I feel there are people in my family [who] struggle with it and don't feel comfortable talking about it,” Rauch said. “I think we're getting there, [and] starting conversation is a big step.”
For Huffman, she feels athletes owe it to their audience to speak up about mental health.
“We're on a platform,” Huffman said. “People are watching us whether we like that or not. We can almost use sport as a vehicle for life.”