When the BYU football team takes the field Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium to face UTSA, look for the Cougar players to be wearing lime-green ribbon helmet stickers that make the shape of a heart and have the No. 3 on them.
Those stickers are part of the #3day campaign by the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation to bring attention to suicide prevention during Mental Health Awareness Week (Oct. 4-10). The No. 3 represents former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide in 2018.
Dealing with mental health challenges can be a monumental task, particular for football players.
Just ask BYU junior linebacker Chaz Ah You.
“I want everyone who reads this to know that my message isn’t for me,” Ah You said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “My message is for the people in your home or the people that you’re interacting with every day, your co-workers, or your family. I want people to realize that it could be inside of the walls of their home. People need to be educated and to learn the signs of it, so that with whoever it may be they can prevent them from dropping into a dark place.
“All it takes is just things aligning perfectly and then boom, people will find themselves in a spot that you never thought they thought they would be in. That’s kind of how it was for me. In my life, when I’ve gone into those super-dark places, eventually it’s just like, screw it, it’s not even worth fighting at this point. The message I want to send is for the people who are struggling that this be taken seriously. You are not alone.”
Ah You’s story of battling mental illness is an example of how difficult facing those struggles can be, particularly since from the outside he appeared to be in a really good situation.
“I come from a great family that’s happy, one that is close,” Ah You said. “My parents have provided every opportunity that I needed to be successful in my life. I’ve received overwhelming love from my parents, my extended family, everyone. I’ve also had success with football. I had to realize that it was a problem that was deeper than my circumstances.”
This year, things were particularly tough as Ah You tried to deal with his personal challenges during a time where he often felt very alone.
But a fortuitous combination of events resulted in Ah You getting to know Fonda Bryant, a mental health advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, with 21 years of experience.
“I happened to be following BYU because of running backs coach AJ Steward,” Bryant said in a phone interview on Monday. “I was an Uber driver in Charlotte and when the coaches clinic was held here, AJ was one of the people I picked up. We didn’t have very far to go but I started talking to him about mental health, told him about my mission and what I was doing.”
Because of that connection, Bryant happened to see a tweet from Ah You’s @Chazyboy03 Twitter account that concerned her and reached out to the Cougar athlete.
“I told him I was a friend of Stewart and that I was also a mental health and suicide prevention advocate,” Bryant said. “I told him that if he wanted to talk, I was there for him. We started talking and he opened up to me, said that he was struggling.”
There was a big difference for Ah You when he started talking about things with Bryant.
“It’s definitely a miracle that I came in contact with Ms. Fonda,” Ah You said. “I definitely think that was a blessing from God directly. It came through people who were starting to educate themselves on the signs of people who are going through their struggles. AJ Steward was educated on finding those signs and he got us in contact. The rest is history.”
He said for the first time it felt like someone truly understood him.
“It was shocking, honestly,” Ah You said. “That was really what helped me to kind of get myself out of that gutter. Sometimes you fall into that deep and dark gutter that you don’t ever think that you will end up in. She pulled me out of it. She told me stuff that I hadn’t heard from anybody else. There was stuff that maybe I was even fighting with myself on and she called me out on it. That was without even really knowing me and she was spot on. From that point on, I knew that she knew what she was was talking about and so I trusted her.”
Bryant said that Ah You was facing some difficult cultural challenges both in his family and in the sport he loves.
“I think some people think they are doing enough but in my mind we’re not doing enough,” Bryant said. “People will address mental health but they won’t understand the cultural pieces because they don’t understand them. We all view mental health differently. It’s looked at as a sign of weakness.”
Ah You said it’s all too easy to just brush the signs aside, even internally.
“It’s ingrained in our system to be strong, to be tough and not to show weakness to the other team or to anybody,” Ah You said. “But it’s a real feeling and you’re going to see that with athletes from all ages who are going to be experiencing that. Everything that you do physically is just as important mentally. You’ve got to take both just as serious. I think even the pros are starting to catch on and they are trying to take care of their mental game just as much as their physical game.”
The importance of seeking help with mental and emotional challenges requires the same strength as it does for a player to seek out a teammate or a coach to address any weaknesses or challenges in his on-field performance.
“You have to understand yourself and how you operate, as well as how depression and anxiety and that mental aspect affects you,” Ah you said. “You have to study to be educated on it. Since I’ve been educated on it, it has been mind blowing to know the things that have affected me.”
Bryant is a tremendous advocate for the importance of education and supporting others. In large part that is due to her own experience with mental health and suicide, and having an aunt who cared enough to help her address her struggles.
“I’ve learned that you have to make mental health your No. 1 priority,” Bryant said. “If you do not take care of your mental health, it is not going to take care of you. My life was hell growing up. I started working when I was 14, working to help take care of my family. My life could’ve been worse but it was tough. I was tough working 40 hours a week and going to high school. And I was dealing with depression then. It’s a miracle I’m still here.”
She strongly believes that uncomfortable conversations and acquiring greater understanding are the only things that will help our society — both in sports and in general — improve with regards to mental illness.
“To help, you have to understand,” Bryant said. “You have to have uncomfortable conversations to make it comfortable for people to get help. Until you have these conversations, nothing is going to change.”
It hasn’t been easy for Ah You to discuss these things with rest of the Cougar football team but he said the support of his brothers on the squad had been tremendously valuable.
“We’re always looking out for each other,” Ah You said. “You want to be the macho man on the team but at the same time I think this team has been very vulnerable to each other. With a topic like mental health, people aren’t speaking out about it as much so people aren’t asking how they can help as much. I think if we can start having more conversations like that, one-on-one or in groups, as a team, or even in position groups, or anything like that, I think we can prevent a lot of bad from happening later on down the road and even right now.”
Often, as Ah You pointed out, the greatest challenge to helping those who are dealing with mental health issues is not knowing what to do. Bryant invites everyone to participate in QPR Suicide Prevention Training, which she teaches online as part of the National Alliance Mental Illness with two classes coming up in October.
“Just like we are all different, mental health is the same way,” Bryant said. “It’s not one size fits all.”
Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or [email protected] Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.