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Student-athletes organize the Virginia chapter of Morgan’s Message, a mental health advocacy organization

How student-athletes are “taking a shot at mental health”

<p>Junior and senior field hockey players Adele Iacobucci and Greer Gill helped start the Virginia chapter of Morgan's Message this past March.&nbsp;</p>

Junior and senior field hockey players Adele Iacobucci and Greer Gill helped start the Virginia chapter of Morgan's Message this past March. 

Before her sophomore year, Duke lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers sustained a severe knee injury, placing her in a 12-month rehabilitation program. A culmination of stressors after the injury led to her life being gone too soon. Faced with feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression, Rodgers suffered in silence. In July of 2019, Rodgers died by suicide at 22 years old.

In response to Rodgers’ unexpected death, friends and family started Morgan’s Message, an organization devoted to eliminating the stigma around mental health, especially among student-athletes.

Today, the Morgan’s Message Education Program can be found at 59 high schools and 80 colleges. The program currently has 245 ambassadors who advocate for student-athlete mental health on their campuses and in their communities.

In March of 2021, then-sophomore and junior field hockey players Adele Iacobucci and Greer Gill co-founded the U.Va. chapter of Morgan’s Message with the help of other U.Va. athletes. The two worked together to start the U.Va. Morgan’s Message Instagram. While the co-founders were familiar with Morgan’s Message from athlete circles at other schools, both had their own personal stakes for getting involved with the chapter at U.Va. 

Gill was familiar with Morgan’s Message because her sister, former Duke field hockey player Ainsley Gill, played club lacrosse with Rodgers.

After Gill’s sister reached out to her about getting involved, Gill knew she would enjoy being a part of the organization and signed up to become an ambassador in the fall of 2020. As friends, roommates and teammates, Iacobucci was inspired by Gill, and she considered her own experience with mental health in and outside of sports and applied to be an ambassador soon after.

This past semester, Iacobucci and Gill reached out to friends on different sports teams at Virginia, showed others how to apply to become an ambassador and held brief meetings and events to foster community and conversation with the chapter’s representatives.

“We want this to be a community of people who can hang out without anything being forced or stressful,” Iacobucci said. “We want this to be a place where people can be real about mental health.”

Morgan’s Message at U.Va. currently has seven ambassadors and over 25 representatives, and Gill hopes Morgan’s Message can inspire a sense of empowerment in athletes to initiate meetings with coaches and schedule individual or team appointments with the athletic department’s sports psychologists. While U.Va. only has two sports psychologists for all 750 athletes, smaller schools and programs don’t have any at all.

In addition to reaching out to other sports teams, Iacobucci and Gill worked with the entire field hockey team to dedicate their March 21 game against James Madison to Morgan’s Message.

Both Virginia and James Madison ambassadors and representatives wore Morgan’s Message t-shirts, and both teams put Morgan’s Message stickers on their sticks and tied blue ribbons to their shoelaces as a symbol of mental health awareness. Rodgers’ parents attended the game, and at half time a video made by both teams about mental health awareness was shown and a moment of silence was held for Rodgers. Following the game, two James Madison players became ambassadors for Morgan’s Message. These James Madison players joined two of their teammates who were already Morgan’s Message members before the game. 

“This organization spreads like crazy because of how interconnected the athlete world is,” Gill said.

Sophomore squash player Myles McIntyre was an integral part of initiating events like the James Madison dedication game for U.Va. Morgan’s Message. McIntyre became involved with Morgan’s Message after a conversation with Gill on Instagram in the winter of 2020, but he soon realized another connection he had with Morgan’s Message.

“My advisor in high school’s daughter, Maddie Crutchfield, played on Morgan’s team at Duke,” McIntyre said. “It all came together for me — this would be a really cool organization to be a part of. Everybody in the athletic world struggles at one point or another with some form of mental health like anxiety or nerves.”

This past semester, McIntyre took on the role of organizing community events, talked with teammates about dedicating a future match to Morgan’s Message and met with football Coach Bronco Mendenhall about dedicating a football game to mental health awareness next season.

Junior lacrosse player Ella Reaves Vaughan also got involved after hearing about Morgan’s Message from Iacobucci and Gill.

Along with four of her teammates, Vaughan is a co-ambassador for Morgan’s Message on women’s lacrosse. Vaughan has collaborated ways to bring Morgan’s Message and its mission to the program with team-building exercises and simple gestures like writing motivational messages for important games to boost team morale. 

“As our team was preparing for the spring season while dealing with the reality of COVID-19, I believed becoming an ambassador and vowing to be an advocate to end the stigma around mental health would be beneficial to everyone on our team in a time as unique as this one has proven to be,” Vaughan said. “Personally, I believe this was a courageous step to take as an individual, as I was challenged to be completely vulnerable for the betterment of not only myself, but for my team and the entirety of the U.Va. athletics program, as student-athletes have been held to a higher standard throughout this year for the success of our sports programs — despite all that is going on in the world around us.”

Within the women’s lacrosse program, Vaughan is optimistic that Morgan’s Message can help create a safe space to have authentic conversations about mental health and how it relates to performance on and off the field.

Looking forward, Iacobucci and Gill mentioned potentially planning a 5k fundraiser and the goal to meet with Director of Athletics Carla Williams. However, despite enthusiasm from several athletes across sports as well as the support of coaches, Morgan’s Message at U.Va. faces one particular obstacle.

Because of NCAA Name Image and Likeness rules, the U.Va. chapter cannot raise money to support mental health awareness. Despite this challenge, student-athletes that work with Morgan’s Message like Iacobucci, Gill, McIntyre and Vaughan are channeling all their effort into fostering a community and safe space for discussions about mental health.

May 24 through May 30 marked Student-Athlete Mental Health Awareness Week, and May represents Mental Health Awareness Month. Look for more resources and information from U.Va. Morgan’s Message via Instagram @morgans_message_uva.