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6 NWSL Stars Leading the Charge for Mental Health Awareness

May 22, 2024, by Jesse McDonough | Courtesy of www.girlssoccernetwork.com



With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to spotlight some standout NWSL players who dedicate their time on and off the field to raising awareness and advocating for mental health. When they’re not giving it their all on the field, they dedicate their time and their platform as professional athletes to providing knowledge and resources to educate others on the importance of taking care of yourself and others. 


I think it’s safe to say that all players care about and value mental health. These players we’ve highlighted are just a handful who have been increasingly/consistently vocal and adamant about shedding light on mental health knowledge and resources. Read on to hear how they’ve been using their platforms, the resources they’ve shared, and the causes they support! 

 

Bethany Balcer – Seattle Reign FC


Bethany has been a long time vocal advocate for mental health. In 2020 during the Utah Challenge Cup in the bubble, Bethany experienced a panic attack early on in the game, unable to catch her breath. Although she didn’t know what it was at the time, it wasn’t until she met with the team’s counselor that they identified it was connected to her mental health. She realized that this is an untouched space and something that needs to be talked about because it’s more common than we realize.


Bethany has since used her platform to shed light on mental health in athletics. She is the author of the esteemed Girls Soccer Network series Diary of A Striker, where she shared her wavering emotions and thoughts through the 2021 season, as well as advice on how we’re not alone in our emotions, what to focus on in our control, and how to never lose joy. 


She’s now getting her degree in counseling while continuing to shine on the field with Reign FC. She’s also a huge advocate for journaling, which is a great tangible tool to sort out your thoughts and emotions. She often posts open, vulnerable, and insightful thoughts on her Instagram platform to continue to be honest with her followers and fans and let them know that it’s okay to have anxiety, doubt, and sadness. Recently, she shared a new brand that she started, called “Bring Your Best”, where she’ll share more mental health content as she completes her counseling internship. Through this initiative, she hopes to help bridge the gap between mental health and athletics and provide shared vulnerability to create community.  


“It’s not something that debilitates you…Mental health should never be an excuse, it’s always something you can work with and reframe your mind.” 

 

Naomi Girma – San Diego Wave & Sophia Smith – Portland Thorns


These two players know the heaviness of mental health, unfortunately, all too well. They lost a dear teammate and friend, Katie Meyer, to suicide in March of 2022. They dedicated the 2023 World Cup to her, and have since then partnered with Common Goal to help launch an international initiative to destigmatize conversations around mental health. It’s called “Create the Space”, and it is backed by other well-known footballers, such as Sofia Huerta (Reign FC), Beth Mead, and Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal). Leading up to the World Cup, the Girma, Smith, and Huerta participated in a three-part feature series and multiple public service announcements produced by FOX Sports to talk about the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing in football. The initiative also will work to send mental health professionals to youth sports organizations to help players and coaches hone the skills they need to identify mental health issues.


Naomi also wrote a powerful essay for the Players’ Tribune dedicated to her best friend, Katie. 

Girma: “What I have learned through losing my best friend, is that everyone struggles in their own way, even when it doesn’t seem they are. Create the Space will help people be the best versions of themselves and may even save lives.”  


Smith: “Take the time to say hi to someone. Send a text if you feel like you haven’t checked in on someone in a while.”

 

Cari Roccaro – Chicago Red Stars


The 2018-2019 season was a challenging one for Roccaro. Battling debilitating mental illness, where she couldn’t even get out of bed some days, she told her then-NC courage coaches that she needed to take a leave of absence to get healthy. While they supported her decision, she was informed that she wouldn’t be paid during her recovery. This fueled a different fire in her, one that would help her create history.


Fast forward to April 30, 2022, when the first NWSL CBA was signed. Most people were concerned with the financial battle that was won, but in that agreement, players are now legally entitled to up to six months of paid mental health leave. Roccaro played a huge role in making this happen. She also hosts the Butterfly Road podcast, where you can find candid conversations about athletes and mental health. She also shared her mental health journey in the CBS ‘Mindset’ series. You can check it out here.

 

Nikki Stanton – Seattle Reign FC


Nikki is always reminding us that it’s okay to not be okay. She recently used her platform and gameday fit to spread awareness that May is Mental Health Awareness and to highlight a Chicago nonprofit that is near to her heart – @coffeehiphopandmentalhealth. Their goal is to lift the stigma surrounding mental health and also provide free individual and group therapy sessions in the Chicago area. She also shed light on National Suicide Prevention Day (September 10th). 

 

Erin McLeod – Stjarnan (Iceland), on loan from Orlando Pride


As a three-time Olympian and Canadian Hall of Famer, Erin McLeod knows a thing or two about pressure and high performance. That is why she is the co-founder of The Mindful Project, an initiative that aims to help young people think positively and improve their confidence through mindfulness.


Whether you’re a student, an athlete, a professional on the field, or in the office, they want to help give you the tools to reach your higher potential. The Mindful Project has since joined Common Goal and joined the ‘1% pledge’, where 1% of the project’s future earnings will go towards Common Goal and the social causes it supports. 


We hope that more athletes will continue to dedicate their platform to raising awareness, shining a light on mental well-being, and destigmatizing mental health issues within sports. If we’ve learned anything, it is that everyone is going through something—be kind, always. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, call or text 988 – Suicide Prevention Hotline.




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