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New Club at HHS Brings Awareness to Student-Athlete Mental Health

Students discuss topics at a Hidden Opponent meetingStudent-athletes at Howell High School now have an additional outlet for discussions related to mental health in The Hidden Opponent. 

According to its website, “The Hidden Opponent is an accredited non-profit organization and advocacy group that raises awareness for student-athlete mental health and addresses the stigma within sports culture.” Started by a former collegiate student-athlete, the organization helps to ensure student-athletes have a space to recognize and bring awareness to “the hidden opponent,” meaning mental health in athletes. In contrast, the visible opponent is the one the athlete is facing across the net, field, or court. Several colleges and high schools have clubs and chapters of The Hidden Opponent to openly combat the stigma around mental health in athletics and create meaningful conversations and change.

Tara Rempel, Howell’s school psychologist and volunteer assistant coach of the girl’s volleyball team, recognized a need within the school building.

“Although I am new to Freehold Regional High School District/Howell High School, I have quickly come to the realization that when we see a need, we fill it. If students can benefit, we find a way. Acknowledging that the students who would see me, or drop in, became more and more athletes vs. non-athletes, I perceived the idea of forming a chapter of The Hidden Opponent at Howell High School,” Ms. Rempel said. 

She added, “Seeing the mental health conversation grow from being a high school athlete at Red Bank Catholic, to a collegiate athlete, to experiencing a taste of being a college coach at Lehigh, to now being in the school full-time in my different capacities, helps me to facilitate a productive conversation around this topic.” 

Recognizing the world has gone through, and is still going through a collective trauma from COVID, the conversation around social-emotional learning/growth is only intensifying. When thinking about high school athletes, several missed their respective season(s) of their sport(s), and their high school experience looks different than what they anticipated, which in and of itself can cause stress. 

The Hidden Opponent has three main goals:

  1. Advocate: all student-athletes should be able to speak openly about their mental health experiences without worrying about being judged or viewed as weak. This club can help amplify the voices and needs of student-athletes.

  2. Educate: bring light to the many issues and struggles, raising awareness to break the stigma of mental health in athletic culture.

  3. Support: a safe space for all student-athletes to feel heard and supported.  

Starting in early November, the club at Howell has quickly grown. After the first meeting, the student-athletes in attendance requested that the group meet bi-weekly, a request which Ms. Rempel granted. Student-athletes from cheerleading, dance, football, baseball, cheerleading, volleyball, soccer, and outside club sports have joined. Each week, the attendance increases, Ms. Rempel reported. 

During the group’s first official meeting, Ms. Rempel left it open to students to determine what the club should “look” like. The students brainstormed and created a path. The result includes a mixture of both discussions of real-world athletes/athletics and mental health, as well as in-the-moment problem-solving/support. For example, the group discussed professional athletes that have recently publicly discussed their mental health. Regarding the support aspect, some student-athletes will discuss the stress of being a student-athlete. The benefit of this includes having a room full of others who understand, validate, and support – which ensures no one feels alone in their struggles. The group recently brainstormed in the new iLab, writing on the tables different ideas about how to de-stress after practice/games. Students got ideas from each other and realized they could problem-solve and work through the stress and different anxieties instead of sitting with them.

Ms. Rempel said they are currently brainstorming the possibility of holding events to raise awareness about student-athletes' mental health.