Colleen Conroy-Amato, the counsellor for the athletics department at Ryerson University, uses a Weeble toy to show athletes they can always get back up from something they are struggling with. (Nicole Brumley/Ryersonian)

Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.

That was the slogan of the 1970s toy: an egg-like character that, when knocked over, rocks back and forth without completely tipping over. Ryerson’s athletics department tries to champion this motto when it comes to student-athletes’ mental health.

Colleen Conroy-Amato is the athletics department counsellor. She uses a Weeble in her office to provide a distraction if athletes are nervous to talk or do not know what to expect when they come to see her. As she describes it, “this vintage toy from old people’s childhood,” can be held onto or played with to calm the athlete’s nerves.

“I’ve had people trying to get this person not to stand back up, and (the Weeble) is always very resilient and gets back on its feet,” said Conroy-Amato.

Conroy-Amato has been with the athletics department for three years. During her time supervising a master of social work intern, there was an opportunity for a counsellor position in athletics. The move was natural as she knew many of the coaches, loved sports, and used to play basketball.

“People don’t expect athletes to necessarily have mental health issues, but they actually have a lot more pressure on them,” said Conroy-Amato.

Colleen Conroy-Amato sitting in her office inside the Mattamy Athletic Centre. (Nicole Brumley/Ryersonian)

Recently, more and more athletes are beginning to speak about mental health. This past season, National Basketball Association (NBA) players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love voluntarily spoke out about their mental health problems. The NBA started holding more discussions and interviews with players about mental health, and as it continues to be a growing discussion in sports, Ryerson is no exception.

Jessica Roque is the lead assistant coach for the Ryerson women’s basketball team. When she was a student-athlete at Cleveland State University from 2006 to 2010, mental health was not on the radar. She remembers it being “one of those things that you tough through,” or talk to teammates that you confide in.

“I think now with more professionals coming out about mental health, it has definitely become easier to talk about it with our student-athletes,” said Roque. “We are not shy to ask our players about it either.”

Rams’ fifth-year men’s basketball player, JV Mukama, said having big-name players speaking out about mental health is important because they have a big platform to create more dialogue.

“Everybody knows that they’re rich and have fame, and you just automatically assume that there’s no way anything can be wrong. Like what do they get to complain about? If those types of guys are able to have any type of mental health struggle or depression … it’s something people should look into,” he said.

Mukama was in his third year when an assistant coach and mentor on the team recommended he talk to Conroy-Amato to help him through some family issues. He was reluctant, but went into her office to give it a try.

“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made because when you think of mental health, you just assume something has to be wrong with you. But when I went in there, it was literally like a conversation with someone that was willing to listen and help you work through some stuff that you don’t usually talk about.”

Mukama said he is “a perfect example” when it comes to looking into your mental health during a rough patch. When he spoke to Conroy-Amato, he wasn’t “depressed or anything,” but talking to someone other than his coach about what he was going through with his family was helpful.

“If it wasn’t for talking to Colleen at the time, I don’t know how it would’ve been or how I would’ve handled the situation,” said Mukama.

According to Mukama, he isn’t someone who likes to vent, and like any person, there are things he’d prefer to keep to himself. Conroy-Amato encouraged him to talk and see how he felt after.

Conversations between Ryerson’s athletes and the counsellors are confidential. While he doesn’t know if any of his teammates have spoken to Conroy-Amato, Mukama said the conversation about mental health on his team is open.

“I don’t think it’s something that our coaches put a schedule around … but all the teams I’ve been a part of at Ryerson are open about it,” he said. “There is no judgment at all.”

There was no judgment on the women’s basketball team last week, when Roque and the rest of her staff met with their players. During an individual meeting with a player who struggles with anxiety and confidence, Roque asked a simple, but meaningful question — “how can we best support you?”

Roque said that understanding the mental health of their athletes makes coaches more relatable to the players. 

“I think it just gives us a better sense of how we can coach them. I don’t necessarily think it means we — for a lack of a better word — coddle them. I think it just gives us a better understanding of how they can be reached.”

For those with a busy student-athlete schedule, Conroy-Amato said it is very convenient for the athletes to utilize her, if they choose to, but she is “not the only deal for them,” and can recommend them to other counsellors or services.

It is not just athletes that come to speak to Conroy-Amato. Even coaches ask her for advice on how to approach the difficult conversations about mental well-being with their players. The conversations with athletes range from injuries to family problems or even breakups.

“I have been amazed at how open everyone is to me being part of the team,” said Conroy-Amato. “Athletes will introduce me to their parents at games. It really has destigmatized mental health.”

Conroy-Amato gives a rock to athletes who are experiencing a tough time and asks them to bring it back when they feel ready, reminding them that their struggle is just a moment in time. As a counsellor, getting her rocks back is one of the best feelings. (Nicole Brumley/Ryersonian)

Recovering from injuries is a delicate time and Conroy-Amato has been running a group for injured athletes for three years now.

“[This group] kind of came from a place where one of the worst parts of being injured is isolation. I recommend apps and things they can do to not feel so alone,” said Conroy-Amato. She added that the group is also a place where athletes can meet other athletes from different teams and have a common goal. It is also a place where they can work on their identities.

“There really hasn’t been a chance for that to evolve because so many hours are going into their sport, so when I ask them to describe themselves, [their sport] is the first thing they say,” said Conroy-Amato. “And it’s heartbreaking, and hard for them, especially if they may be having a career-ending injury.”

Being a counsellor dedicated to athletics gives Conroy-Amato a special connection when helping the players.

“[Athletes] know if you get what they are going through, and you can’t fake liking athletics,” said Conroy-Amato. “I love sports. I go to the games. So you really care about the whole person here.”

As the athletics department continues to focus on the mental health of its student-athletes and help them “weeble” back up from anything that holds them down, Conroy-Amato’s favourite part of her job is bittersweet.

“It’s when people tell me they don’t need me anymore…  My job is to have them break up with me,” she said. “It’s hard, but you get it.”

With files from Aidan Lising

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