ROCKINGHAM — Ahead of its first round playoff game a few weeks ago, the Richmond Senior High School softball team wanted to send a special message.
Using eye black, the players painted a letter or symbol on their forearms to create the message “#YouMatter.”
Two simple words, they formed a powerful message and sent encouragement to anyone who may have needed it.
May was mental health awareness month, recognized by the National Alliance for Mental Health, among other major institutions across the country.
Wanting to help raise awareness, the Lady Raiders made the gesture in hopes of reaching out to others.
Discussions and advocacy for mental health awareness concerning athletes in the United States surged in recent months following a series of college student-athlete suicides that drew national headlines.
Ryelan Lyerly, a sophomore multi-sport athlete at Richmond said a lot of the negative news resonated with her.
Through a conversation with her mother, Kim Lyerly, and experiences coping with her own mental health, Lyerly was inspired to help raise awareness.
“We sat down after practice and talked about seeing so many posts about mental health and we wanted to try and help any way we could,” Lyerly explained. “The idea came to us and the whole team was on board.
“Our thought was that if others saw us united about mental health, it could make a difference to someone. You never know that maybe just one small thing could matter a lot to one person.”
Raising Awareness: “It’s okay not to be okay.”
On the softball field, Macy Steen is known for her big smile and even bigger personality.
The junior catcher’s voice was one of the strongest in supporting the #YouMatter message and advocating for mental health awareness.
“What drives me is what I’ve seen in the media and how my own friends and myself have struggled with mental health,” Steen said. “As student-athletes, we can beat ourselves up so much about a sport. When you don’t talk to anyone, it can eat you alive.
“I encourage everyone to reach out to a friend, family member, teacher or coach. It’s important to know it’s okay not to be okay. I want people to know they have a voice and they’re not weak for using that voice.”
In seventh grade, Steen said that’s when she first experienced being bullied. That made her aware of the reality that not every day will be a good day, but things can always get better.
A dual-enrollment student, Steen said “grades are a huge stress” while trying to balance sports. Along with the possibility of going through a softball slump, Steen decided she was going to always put her mental health first.
“I’ve learned not to sacrifice my mental health for sports or grades,” Steen explained. “It’s important to keep the conversation going because even if you’re not dealing with something at the moment, you want to know you can go to others if you need it.
“Mental health is something we all deal with our whole lives and it can be good or bad. It’s better to have an awkward conversation with someone who cares than leave questions unanswered.”
The Atmosphere of Sports: “It’s better to embrace the positivity”
During her two years at Richmond, Lyerly has played volleyball, basketball and softball. Her year-round hustle brings her a lot of joy, but it can be physically and mentally taxing.
One thing she makes sure of is being surrounded by a positive atmosphere, putting an emphasis on working hard, but also having fun in the process.
“Sports are meant to be fun and give you a chance to learn,” Lyerly noted. “The last thing I want sports to become is a job. They give us a get-away place from everything going on in the world.
“All of us fell in love with sports at an early age and it’s had a major positive impact on our lives. It’s important that we embrace those moments with each other.”
When she was in sixth grade, Lyerly struggled with her mental health for the first time. She “sought help and grew from it,” which has allowed her to better face new challenges.
Lyerly used those experiences as motivation to set the bar high and try to be an exemplary student-athlete.
“I try to remember that there are younger people who are probably going through something similar, and that a lot of people look up to high school athletes,” Lyerly explained. “I try to be a good role model, and I don’t want to be fake, so that’s why I advocate for mental health awareness.
“Everybody can experience problems, and I want to let people know it’s normal to fall apart. Life has ups and downs, but it’s better to embrace the positivity around you. I think mental health awareness should be brought to light more as a society, and not just with student-athletes.”
Sharing My Story: “It really did help me”
A physical presence on defense for the Lady Raider soccer team, senior Paxlee Faircloth has proven herself to be a dominant force during her four-year career.
But underneath that tough exterior, Faircloth was dealing with depression, something new to her starting last fall. Wanting to express her feelings and connect with others, she made a social media post chronicling her journey, for which she received overwhelming support.
“A lot of people aren’t very open about discussing mental health, and it can impact them if there is no one to talk to,” Faircloth said. “When I started going to therapy, I felt like it was an embarrassment, but it really did help me.
“I wanted to share my story and say it was okay to get help and deal with these types of issues. I didn’t think I’d get that kind of support, but a lot of people commented and it opened my eyes that people want to help.”
Faircloth was encouraged to participate in things she enjoyed. She added swimming to her regimen and said playing her senior soccer season helped keep her mind occupied.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing sports and they really help me stay focused on the positives,” Faircloth said. “My friends were with me every day and that was a good environment to be in.
“It’s good to see so much support, especially from people my age. If people want to help or offer encouragement, let them. Every teenager and person deserves to have those positive people in their life.”
Next Level: “Mental health can affect anyone”
Kearston Bruce graduated from Richmond in 2021 and has spent the last year playing softball at Bridgewater College. A member of the school’s honor college, Bruce’s top priorities lie in the classroom and on the diamond.
As she progressed through her classes, Bruce noticed her anxiety becoming more prominent. The pressures of college were eased thanks to softball and learning to ask others for help.
“During the first few months of college, I was really anxious,” Bruce explained. “The pressure of school and time management were big stressors and I had to learn to rely on others for help when I needed it.
“When I become anxious, softball is the thing that makes me feel most calm. It all goes away and just being out on the field makes me feel better. Being with teammates who also share a lot of the same feelings is helpful, too.”
A successful year playing for the Eagles was also overshadowed by a couple of tragedies.
In February, Bruce experienced an active shooter scenario on campus, which resulted in the deaths of a Bridgewater police officer and security officer. James Madison University’s Lauren Bennett’s suicide earlier this spring also impacted the Bridgewater program less than 10 miles away.
“After the shooting, I came home and didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t want to think about what happened,” Bruce shared. “When we got back to school, Coach Sam (Korn) was able to really relate to and listen to us.
“When (Bennett) died, it was such a shock since that school was so close to mine. That’s when I realized mental health can affect anyone, and our coaches made sure to let us know that all we needed to do was ask for help if we needed it.”
Bruce said she and other students “received a lot of support” at Bridgewater following the events this past school year. In addition to offering group sessions, she said her biggest support system was her softball teammates.
Note: This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published in the coming days and feature insight from staff members at Richmond Senior High School.