Tre Tipton felt off. Yet the Pittsburgh wide receiver spent years wrestling with his inner demons in silence, assuming it was up to him to sort things out on his own because, well, that’s just how things worked.
“We have to be the manliest of men,” Tipton said. “From a men’s perspective, it hasn’t been easy. You’re expected to brush the dirt off.”
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Only the dirt — the kind you can’t get at with soap and water — lingered during Tipton’s roller-coaster career, one that’s included three different seasons being cut short by injury. For all the rehabilitation Tipton put his body through during his six years with the program, he struggled to find peace.
Enter Kristen Mackel. The lead clinical counselor for Pitt athletics, Mackel kept gently reaching out to Tipton. She’d shoot him a text to ask him how he was doing. She repeatedly reminded him that her door — or at least her computer screen for a Zoom call — was always open. Last spring, as the tentacles of COVID-19 pandemic spread, upending the normal routine for Tipton and the other 400-plus Pitt athletes, Tipton finally relented.
“Once we sat down and talked, it gave me a sense of relief,” Tipton said.
Months later after countless talks, Tipton said Mackel “knows me better than most people know me. I used to work so hard to keep people out. She helped me learn to open myself up.”
The relationship between Tipton and Mackel is one that’s become commonplace in athletic departments across the Atlantic Coast Conference and the country as the stakeholders involved put a larger emphasis on the vital role mental health care plays in the development of athletes on and off the field.
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The ACC hosted a Mental Health and Wellness Summit in 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. A second one was planned for last May before being scuttled by the pandemic. The conference offered a webinar instead focused on helping college athletes find ways to deal with the ripple effects of COVID-19. More than 400 tuned in.
“Our conference will continue to take a leadership role as now, more than ever, it’s critical to ensure our student-athletes, coaches and administrators have available resources and educational materials as we face unprecedented challenges in college athletics,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said.
Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke was way ahead of him. For years athletes had outpatient services available to them through Western Psychiatric Hospital, located halfway up “Cardiac Hill” in the middle of campus. Yet Lyke made the decision two years ago to embed mental health professionals in the athletic department. She gave Mackel and Leigh Skvarla offices at the nearby Petersen Events Center, home of the men’s and women’s basketball program and a hub for most of the school’s athletes.
Lyke’s reasoning was two-fold. By having the…