Ryan Day's Commitment to Mental Health Advocacy Inspired By Personal Tragedy

By Dan Hope on June 5, 2019 at 5:57 pm
Ryan Day

As mental health becomes an increasingly recognized issue in the United States, Ryan Day wants to be a part of the conversation.

Ohio State’s football coach and his wife made that clear on Wednesday morning, when they announced the creation of The Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The Days have personally committed $100,000 to the fund, which will help the hospital support families affected by mental health issues and to research and develop new treatments and prevention strategies.

The Days’ decision to focus on mental health in their first major philanthropic effort as the first couple of Ohio State football stems, in part, from the fact that their own family has been directly impacted by the effects of mental illness.

In announcing the creation of his fund on Wednesday, Day revealed that his father died by suicide in 1988, when he was just 9 years old. As Day gradually came to terms with his father’s death over the past three decades, he came to understand that mental health is an issue that affects people all over the world – and now, he’s in a position to help do something about it.

“I think that when you grow up and you’re young and something like that happens, you go through a range of emotions from angry to sad to resentment,” Day said during a press conference on Wednesday. “And then as you get older, you start to realize in your 20s and 30s, it kind of makes more sense on what happened, you have a better perspective of what it is. And so, growing up, I didn’t quite understand what all went down. And then as I get older, I start to realize that it was a sickness, and that there’s people out there that need help.”

Being in Columbus gives Day a prime opportunity to help address the issue since the Nationwide Children’s Hospital is currently in the process of building the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion, a nine-story facility at the hospital scheduled to open next spring. It's is expected to be the largest facility on a pediatric campus devoted to children and adolescent mental health in the United States.

Steve Testa, president of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation, said the pavilion will be a “fully multidisciplinary facility” that will provide emergency, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care, while also housing all of the hospital’s research on mental health.

The goal of Nationwide Children’s Hospital is to develop a system of pediatric mental health care and research that can then serve as a model for similar facilities all over the country, and the Days want to raise money to help make that happen.

“What they’re doing is something that really hits home with me, hits home with Nina,” Day said Wednesday. “It’s kind of on the cutting edge in terms of what they’re trying to do in building a hospital next spring for teenagers and adolescents in crisis. And we believe, in all of our hearts, that this is something in the next 10 to 20 years that can really improve our youth. Obviously this is an epidemic right now in our country, and we want to be a part of it. So we started the fund where we want to raise as much money as we can to help with this hospital.”

According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s website, one in five children in the U.S. are affected by mental illness, yet less than half get the treatment they need. Half of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24, according to the hospital.

Day believes that treatment needs to be readily available for people who have mental illnesses, and he wants to help break the stigma that might discourage people who need treatment from seeking it.

“There’s a stigma attached to it that I don’t think is right,” Day said. “It’s a stigma that maybe even as a young person, I bought into. And then as I got older, I don’t buy that anymore. It’s just like any other sickness. I think if somebody has cancer or somebody gets ill, they need treatment. Well, it’s the same thing with mental health. And I think that’s the biggest thing is breaking these stigmas. Breaking the stigma, especially men, of not having those conversations, that they need help.”

Testa said that having Day join the conversation and helping break that stigma, which is the goal of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s “On Our Sleeves” campaign, is a “dream come true” because of the platform that he has.

“His platform is massive, and his outreach is almost unlimited here in Columbus,” Testa said in a phone interview with Eleven Warriors on Wednesday. “So I think just having Coach come out and talk about what he talked about today with his own personal story, I think that’s going to give hopefully kids and families the courage to say, ‘Hey, Coach is talking about this, the Buckeyes are talking about it, it’s OK for us to talk about it. It’s OK for me to tell my best friend that I’m depressed or I’ve had thoughts about suicide or to tell my teacher, to tell my mother, my father.’ I think Coach and Nina out there talking about this makes all the difference in the world, and the hope is that he’s going to be able to motivate Buckeye Nation and all the fans out there to get involved in some way.”

“It’s just like any other sickness. I think if somebody has cancer or somebody gets ill, they need treatment. Well, it’s the same thing with mental health. And I think that’s the biggest thing is breaking these stigmas. Breaking the stigma, especially men, of not having those conversations, that they need help.”– Ryan Day on the stigma surrounding mental illness

Day’s perspective on mental illness has been shaped not only by his father’s death, but also by his job as a college football coach. In working with 18-to-22-year-old young men on a daily basis, Day understands that it is important to have conversations within the program about mental health in order to help break down the stigmas that can be especially prevalent with young men and especially within a sport like football.

“There’s anxiety, there’s depression, there’s things that go on even with our players, and I want those guys to feel like they can have those conversations,” Day said. “Especially being a football coach, in kind of a manly sport, I think it’s good for people to hear the fact that our guys are vulnerable, we’re all vulnerable and that if people need help, they shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

Mental health has become a greater area of focus within the Ohio State athletic department in recent years, including within the Real Life Wednesdays program that former coach Urban Meyer spearheaded, and now Day wants to take it even further. He said the Buckeyes have two full-time sports psychologists that players will be encouraged to talk to about any issues they might need help with.

Day is far from the only one within the football program and athletic department who understands the importance of addressing mental health issues.

Ohio State passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich was among the assistant coaches who praised Day’s efforts to raise mental health awareness during media availability at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Wednesday.

“Everything’s changing around us and being able to look at the student-athlete’s well-being and knowing we have to adjust something, and for coach Day to take the steps he’s taking, from a mental health standpoint, I get up and applaud him big-time,” Yurcich said. “That’s unbelievable and a very righteous cause. It’s well-needed in this society.”

Ohio State basketball coach Chris Holtmann also applauded Day for his efforts on Wednesday, expressing that mental health is a “constant conversation” with his team as well.

“I think it’s tremendous what he and his wife are doing,” Holtmann said. “My wife and his wife had a chance to talk a lot about what they’re doing. So super excited to see that and support that in any way we can.”

To learn more about The Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness and/or donate to the cause, visit the fund's page on Nationwide Children's Hospital's website.

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