A Leader On and Off The Field: Tulsa Lineman Chris Paul Realizes Mental Health Is a 5 in 5 Issue

Chris Paul, University of Tulsa Football

Ben: Explain to us your athletic career growing up until today. How did you get to where you are as a college athlete?

Chris: Growing up, sports has always played a role in my life; from soccer in elementary school to basketball in middle school to football in high school, there has always been an athletic outlet. However, football, the sport that has impacted my life’s trajectory the most was not extremely important to me until my junior year of high school. As a freshman, I was heavily doubted by both teammates and coaches in terms of athletic ability. I would often look at my agemates playing on varsity and wonder what I had to do to get to that point. Early on, I grasped the difference between a marathon and a race. Showing up to football every day, without outward complaints about my current situation, and simply ready to work was what allowed me to subtly disprove all preconceived notions about my athletic ability. In the Spring of my junior year, by the grace of God, I began to accumulate numerous athletic scholarships, which in turn helped in instilling confidence within me; not the arrogant kind of confidence, but the good kind that brings about reassurance in being steadfast and reaping the fruits of your labor. On February 1st, 2017, I had the privilege of signing a National Letter of Intent with The University of Tulsa. Ironically, despite my ~slow start~, I was the only football player in my class to sign to a Division I school. A year and a half later, as a red-shirt freshman, I started in my first collegiate game.

Ben: What was the feeling you had one you got the chance to start in your first collegiate game after all of your hard-work? What advice would you give athletes that want to get to that point?

Chris: Surprisingly, I found at that I was going to start 4 days before first game. Originally, I was at the 2nd string tackle spot with the understanding that I needed to be prepared to play both right and left tackle in the event of an emergency. However, my coach pulled me into his office and told me that he would like to play at right guard, a position that happened to need some fine tuning. Up to that point, I had never played the guard position and had to adjust in every aspect, from the stance to the terminology to the technique and so on. Regardless of your current situation, things have a way of falling into place. I would advise anyone looking to get to that point to focus on what YOU can do to get better. Deciphering other people’s situation and questioning your own is a breeding ground for negativity and can do nothing to help advance you or your team.

Ben: Can you please give us some insight on your mental health experiences?

Chris: Mental health is a topic that I did not pay that much attention to prior to coming to college. My mental health experience, thankfully, has been fairly steady. There are a lot of things that I’ve never dealt with on a personal level, however, I make it a point to be informed about the many challenges that others face.

Ben: Why is it important to be informed even though you have not dealt with any mental health challenges? You have become a leader on and off the field, what kind of support system can you give athletes that are struggling?

Chris: Statistics will show you that it’s likely that someone that you interact with on a day-to-day basis is struggling with some type of mental health issue. Being knowledgeable of these issues can aid in making you a viable resource for friends who may be in need. As a leader, it’s important to me to inform the student-athlete body of resources available to those who are struggling, whether it be through workshops, meetings, or routine emails. By making certain resources available and visible at all times, people won’t be reluctant to reach for the sake of avoiding inquiry.

Ben: How has your mental health journey impacted you as a college athlete?

Chris: I wholeheartedly believe that my high school experience fostered a smooth transition into college. Similar to my current college experience, I was very involved within my high school community. I understood how to deal with time management and the importance of finding the right balance between extracurricular and academics. Therefore, as a college athlete, I look at my current situation as more of an experience that I’m blessed with rather than a chore or obligation.

Ben: Mental health is on a spectrum, it seems you have been quite fortunate to be on the positive end of the spectrum for most of your athletic career. What are some things you have done to make sure that your mental health is always accounted for?

Chris: Although I’ve been fortunate in that regard, I make it a point to have one-on-one conversations with my advisors and counselors. Not only do I schedule routine meetings with them, they also reach out from time to time to make sure that I’m still intact in all areas, which I’m ever grateful for. 

Ben: How do you think we can become more aware as a society about disorders and stop the stereotypes?

Chris: Firstly, as a whole, we need to expunge the stigma around mental health. I serve on the Executive Board for the American Athletic Conference’s SAAC group and we’ve started an initiative called PowerfulMinds. The initiative centered around the normalization of mental health, as it’s an issue that a lot people struggle with. Ending the stigma will bring about courageous conversations pertaining to the subject.

Ben: What are some of the projects you have been working on with PowerfulMinds?

Chris: One of the great things about the Powerful Minds initiative is the teamwork that it embodies. As it’s a conference-wide initiative, it operates on the grounds of uniformity. For example, every fall and spring we have a #PowerfulMinds week, in which there are themes across each school in the conference. Teams are issued uniform bands, patches, garb and regalia to signify the importance of the week. As fans and supporters see the green-colored gear accompanied with the uniform, they question what it’s for, which in turn allots the opportunity to inform the public about issues pertaining to mental health, normalize the occurrence of the issue, and #EndTheStigma

Ben: Do you have any advice for people struggling with their own mental health journey right now?

Chris: I would urge anyone struggling with their mental health to understand that they are not alone; there is likely someone in their shoes struggling with something similar. In terms of college students/athletes, I would encourage them to seek out resources on their campuses and within their athletic departments.

Ben: It seems like your team culture is very positive. Is mental health something that is being addressed on your squad? If not, what do you think needs to be done?

Chris: In terms of addressing the issue, across the board, more can be done. Although athletic departments as a whole are making known of the resources available on campus, individual teams, including mine, need to remind players of these resources as well. In conjunction with that, coaches and staff need to be held accountable in making sure that they are fostering an environment that brings about positive mental health.

Ben: What do you think schools and coaches could do to address this issue more?

Chris: In my opinion, schools and coaches should make it a point to make sure they’re equipped with the proper resources and personnel to assist students dealing with this issue. Coaches, in particular, need to be challenged with making sure they are aware of common mental health disorders, ways to identify them, and to make sure they are checking in and monitoring their players’ mental spaces, especially during times like this.

Ben: Why do you think it is so hard for athletes to open up and talk with their coaches and teammates about what they are going through?

Chris: As previously mentioned, there is a stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the realm of athletics. As athletes, we are often in environments that groom us to suppress our emotions, therefore showing any kind of vulnerability in that regard would make us “soft.”

Ben: We often notice a strong stigma attached to men talking about mental health and what that means about masculinity. What does masculinity mean to you and what can men do to open up more?

Chris: In my opinion, it would be foolish to deny that there is a stigma in place pertaining to men and being emotionally vulnerable. It’s up to us as a society to expunge this stigma, because in reality, the idea that men should hold it in, push through it, “thug it out” etc.  is unhealthy. We’re all human and there is only so much humans can deal with. Struggling in silence will only create the opportunity to possibly release these stressors in a dangerous way.