Taylor Gardner On Understanding Mental Health & Overcoming The Challenges

Obviously, there's this huge stigma around mental health, and coming into college, a lot of athletes don't really have an understanding of the importance of the topic. In what ways has your perception of what mental health means change since you first entered college till now?

Taylor Gardner: Yeah, so I kind of joked that when I was in high school, we only talked about mental health if it was something horrible, like a suicide, or if it was in a movie. I thought it was extreme and it didn't have anything to do with my life. So entering the college athletic world, your mental health is just as important as physical. And I mean, it's that way everywhere. But if you're not spending as much time taking care of your mental health as you are your physical health, like, it's gonna be a downhill slide fast. That's kind of what happened to me. I just had never realized that the mental game was even a part of it. And I quickly saw a decent in that. So that's when I really started meeting with my sports psychologist here at K-State and realized that it was important and that there was something wrong. So that was kind of my first time, I acknowledged what mental health really was. And so that transition from high school to here was definitely where that became prominent.

And why is mental health something that's so important to you now?

Taylor Gardner: Yeah, so about a year ago, I had gotten in a really dark place and was suffering from pretty bad depression, anxiety, and just didn't want to talk about it. I would put the biggest smile on my face to anyone once I left the room and would just be like, "Yeah, I'm good. Yeah, something's a little bit off. But nothing's really wrong." And then I'd come home and just be in the worst place and didn't want to do anything. It was just horrible. It was so isolating. I just wasn't me. So knowing how I felt and knowing that there's a lot of other athletes that feel that way. Athletes that feel alone. Athletes that feel like they can't talk about it. That they have to be tough, and it's not okay to be not okay, which it is okay, not to be okay. I just speak out about it now to let people know that they're not alone and that help is important because we can't do it on our own. So that's why it just really became important to me that maybe my story, someone else can hear it and just say, "Okay, well, she went through it and she got help, and it worked. So maybe I need to do the same."

You talked about how athletes have this mindset where you always have to show toughness and you can't be vulnerable. Can you talk about the importance of you opening up? And how that vulnerability helped you escape some of those dark thoughts you were having?

Taylor Gardner: So that vulnerability is something I've always struggled with within my life. I don't like to open up. I opened up first to my sports psychologist, as I said, and then to a few close friends. Even just telling like three people what was going on, it automatically felt a little bit lighter. Like a little bit off my shoulders, and showed me that people are here to check on me. People are here to make sure that I'm not just sitting in my room all day with these horrible thoughts. Because that's what happens. You kind of just sort of like sit there and soak up those thoughts over and over again when you don't want to do anything else. It's a horrible cycle, and you can't get out of it. So just being vulnerable, and taking the time to share my story with other people made that cycle likely less to happen because they were coming checking on me like all the time. They'd say "Let's get out of the room or let's just go on a walk. Let's do anything." It was definitely hard. And it was scary. And I hated every second of it. But it was 110% worth it. And everyone needs someone. You can't ever do it by yourself.

You recently just retired, right?

Taylor Gardner: Yeah.

What has that transition been like for you? Because that can be a mental challenge within itself. So what does that process been like?

Taylor Gardner: So I had to medically retire because I had my third hip surgery in about three years. And I was just trying to put my health first because I want to run in the future and to just be able to play with my kids in the yard. So that was kind of the decision-making there. But honestly, just stepping away from athletics was super hard in itself. I've been an athlete since I was four. That's all I've ever known. That's all I remember. I'd say it was easier for me because I knew that my identity wasn't an athlete. I'm a strong Christian. I know that my identity. I'm a daughter. I'm a friend. There's so much more to me than just soccer. I think if I wouldn't have known that - I would have been mentally devastated. I would be like, "I'm nothing now." But I just think it's so important for every athlete who makes that transition, because it's going to come at some point for all of us, just to know that we are so much more than our sport, and it makes it a lot easier knowing that.

Now that you're on the other side of the fence. What are some of the things that you're looking to do next? I know you're involved with an organization called No Stone Unturned. Can you talk a little bit about your next steps, that organization, and the work that you're doing there?

Taylor Gardner: Yeah, so I work at No Stone Unturned right now in Manhattan. It's a nonprofit that helps provide therapy to kids with disabilities, and I have a huge heart for it. But my real dream, and goal is to open my own nonprofit organization for orphan care and prevention. I'm a huge advocate for that. And honestly, that's long-term. Short term, I really want to speak up for mental health like we're doing here. I had a presentation yesterday with a different organization about my story, and I want to start targeting, high schoolers so that they don't come to college and are so taken aback by what this is. Let's get the topic out there first, and let's prepare them and let them know that there are resources before they even get to this point. Because it happens to a lot of college students. It's a hard transition. So just having those conversations beforehand and letting them know that mental health doesn't have to be extreme. That's what I'd like to do in the near future. Just put myself out there more and just advocate for mental health and just let people know that they're not alone.

I love it. Super in line with what we're doing here as well. Lastly, if there's one thing that you can tell another athlete, who might be struggling or might not understand certain aspects about mental health, and how it plays a part in them being successful on and off the playing field, what would you tell them? What advice would you give them?

Taylor Gardner: You know, I think the easiest way for an athlete to understand it is like relating it to physical health. If you hurt your knee or tore your ACL, you're not going to keep playing on it. You're going to take time to recover. You're going to take time to rehab. It's the same way with your mental health. If you're not feeling great, you've got to take time to dig into that and talk to someone or get help. And if you're feeling great, we still take ice baths when we're not hurt so you still have to be taking care of yourself each and every day. I think that's the easiest way for athletes to understand it just because our bodies is what we do. But yeah, I would just say that it's just as equally important as your physical health to take care of your mental health and if you don't quite understand it, reach out to someone who does and have conversations about it. Just try to understand it more so that if you were to ever like get in a bad place mentally you would know how to what to do instead of just be taken off guard right there.

I love that comparison. I actually use it all the time as well. We don't wait for our bodies to be hurt for us to work on our physical health. So we shouldn't wait for something to happen with our minds for us to consistently work on our mental health and our headspace every day so I definitely agree with that. But, Taylor, thank you again, appreciate your time and please keep up the great work.

Taylor Gardner: Thank you so much.

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