Senior track and field distance runner Molly Joseph is no stranger to the lack of awareness in athlete's mental health.
“I’ll just be walking around campus, and people think I have it all together because I’m a D1 athlete, I’ve got track and field gear on," Joseph said. "When really, I’m the one struggling internally the most ... we’re looked at, put up on this pedestal, when really, no one sees us as more than that.”
She and a number of other South Carolina student-athletes have made it their goal to reverse that stigma and advocate for the mental health of not just student-athletes but also the general population.
Mental health has played a significant role in Joseph’s early life, as she was diagnosed with a binge-eating disorder and depression before moving in as a college freshman. She said she “hit rock bottom” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to her eventually seeking treatment after she realized she needed to help herself before becoming a mental health advocate for others.
“I’ve just been training hard, just trying to get myself healthy again. These past two years, (I) have really been prioritizing myself and my mental health," Joseph said. "Using the resources at South Carolina — therapy, dietitians, coaches’ support and teammates’ support — I’ve been able to get back on my feet, back to competing again.”
Even though she still struggles with mental health from time to time, Joseph said she was motivated to become an advocate because she did not want others to feel like they were alone.
“That whole time I was going through it, even prior to treatment, even a little bit after, no one knew that I was struggling with this because I was too ashamed to talk about it and because I thought I was the only one,” Joseph said. “At the end of the day, I don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt.”
In her time as an advocate, Joseph has joined The Hidden Opponent, a non-profit group that brings awareness to student-athlete mental health. The organization consists of more than 800 athlete ambassadors, called “campus captains,” that spread across over 500 college campuses around the world.
As a member of The Hidden Opponent, Joseph is tasked with creating a mental health advocacy project each month. She said her project in October 2022, which came during the same month as the SEC Cross Country Championship, is what brought a lot of attention to her cause.
During the event, Joseph visited her competitors’ tents before the race and asked that they wear green ribbons, an internationally-recognized symbol of mental health awareness. Runners from 13 of the 14 SEC schools wore the ribbons during the race, and Joseph said many of them came to her individually after the race, thanking her, telling her about their own experiences and extending their support.
“It was really cool bridging that gap and realizing this is so much more than our sport,” Joseph said. “This is about a group of people really coming together, advocating for something that isn’t talked about and is often stigmatized.”
Taylor Jacobson, a sophomore defender on the women’s soccer team, said her team engaged in an identical display of solidarity by wearing green warmup jerseys before a regular season match.
“We’re really serious about mental health and being open with each other," Jacobson said. "So promoting that and using my platform as a D1 athlete to post on social media and tell people that it’s okay to not be okay at times."
Other athletes, like senior tennis player Ayana Akli, believe transparency is important because she said she understands that some student-athletes may not realize it is something they struggle with.
“I struggled a lot last year with it, so when it comes to talking with my teammates and stuff, I’m always here and letting them know what my experiences were and that they aren’t just alone,” Akli said.
Efforts from these athletes to create further change on USC's campus, including with the school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee's recent addition of a mental health subcommittee, which Joseph is a member of.
Joseph said she hopes to go bigger with her advocacy in the future by integrating more of her track and field teammates into her campaigns, and later on, the SEC as a whole. As her mental health initiatives change and grow, she said her guiding philosophy remains the same.
“I made it back. I overcame mine," Joseph said. "Why would I not want to help other people?”