‘Check Up from the Neck Up’ Prioritizes Student Athletes’ Well-Being

Zora DeSeignora ’23, Spanish and Communications
Student athletes playing a game in the HUB space
Student athletes and staff enjoy a game in the H.U.B. space.

A new initiative designed to support mental health and well-being among Widener student athletes is providing additional resources in a warm, welcoming space.

Check Up from the Neck Up, headed by Elizabeth Atwood, staff counselor in the university Counseling and Psychological Services office (CAPS), and Larissa Gillespie, associate athletic director, created the program out of their passion for working with athletics, Division III student athletes, and the growing need nationally for mental health resources for athletes.

Atwood worked closely with student-athletes at a previous institution and wanted to bring the concept to Widener, where 550 students also play a sport.

“When I came to Widener, I reached out to see if there was any opportunity and possibility to partner with the athletics department to continue to work with athletes,” Atwood said. She consulted her supervisor, CAPS Director Jennifer Horowitz, who connected her to Gillespie. The idea was a hit and things moved quickly.

The initiative is currently in a pilot phase and includes 15-minute talks about specific topics that help students gain strategies and skills to help manage mental health challenges. Discussions are open-table conversations led by a staff member from CAPS and a social work intern. They focused this spring on three topics: 1) transitioning out of sports when athletes leave college, 2) stress management and 3) self-care.  

Conversations take place in a redesigned room known as Health, Unity, and Belonging, or the H.U.B. – which is located in the Schwartz Athletic Center. The H.U.B. is designated and designed for athletes and coaches to be used as a space to relax, grab a snack and take a mental health break.  

The room was created based on input Atwood and Gillespie received from a survey they sent out to student athletes and the student athletes on Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). The space includes drinks and nutritional snacks, countertop space for students to either do their work or sit down, and calming colors. There are plans to have a mural painted on one of the walls this summer.  

“One year ago, we started to discuss that we needed to do more for our student athletes. We had started the Mental Health Minute Mondays videos on the athletic website and the Breathe campaign on the university’s myWidener portal, which was an initiative created a few years ago by student athlete Anna Dunn. However, we realized we need a daily check-in, a daily space for student athletes and staff,” said Gillespie.

Student athletes Margaret Howe-Consiglio, Brynn Foley, Stephen Posner and Joe Nescio were influential in the creation of space. Howe-Consiglio said students helped brainstorm things to include in the room. 

“This space has so many different purposes, but the main part is this space is for student-athletes,” she said. “To perform well in the classroom and in our sport, we need to feel 100% strong physically and mentally. Having a designated space to help us be our best and feel our best is another way our athletic department supports us.”

The initiative comes at a time when NCAA student athlete well-being studies have shown that mental health topics are on the minds of college student athletes across all divisions of play nationally. The effort at Widener is yet another tool provided by a university that is dedicated to welcoming all students and giving them the tools and support to be their true selves so they can thrive.

Student athlete Necsio said the H.U.B. is particularly important as the semester draws to a close. 

“With finals week quickly approaching, regular seasons ending and playoffs beginning, stress for athletes may be at a heightened level. The H.U.B. is a space where athletes can visit with their teammates to discuss the stresses, or to just relax and have a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Gillespie said the whole initiative is about changing the culture to help educate on the importance of health and wellness of an individual, both athlete and coach.

“I hope that we keep this going for the future and can be an example for other institutions,” she said.

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