Story by: Nick Picht; Reviewed by Paula M. Struck, LCSW on December 1, 2023
It’s Thursday afternoon at Knights Hall, and the sounds of leather hitting hardwood signal the Bellarmine University men’s basketball team is ready to start practice.
Shooting drills dominate this afternoon’s day on the court — catch and shoot, two-dribble pullups, pick-and-pop. It’s easy to see how this physical training would translate to in-game performance.
At the back of the gym, behind the stage, sits a small office barely bigger than a coat closet. It’s guarded by a set of gray double doors. A small sheet of computer paper is taped to them.
Printed on the sign is the phrase “Paula Struck Waiting Area.”
This hard-to-find office, in the back of the gym, is where Bellarmine athletes train for the mental side of the game.
Sunday April 3, 2022, was the day Alexa Rastigue’s life changed forever.
The then-junior field hockey player had just finished a weekend’s worth of matches, with her brother Anthony, mom Leti, and soon-to-be sister-in-law Kassidi in town from Michigan to watch her play. After the games, they hugged goodbye and her family began the drive home.
In the meantime, Alexa hit the books, finishing some weekend homework.
Around 11 p.m., Alexa looked at her phone and noticed she hadn’t heard from her mother. She called, but it went right to voicemail. Then she checked her brother’s location. It said ProMedica Toledo Hospital in Toledo, Ohio.
Then her phone rang.
“Within five minutes, I get a call from ProMedica Hospital,” Alexa said. “It was a nurse, and she said, ‘Is this Alexa Rastigue?’ I said, ‘yes.’ She said, ‘Are you related to Anthony Rastigue?’ I said, ‘That’s my brother. What’s going on? Is everything OK?’ And she said, ‘Well, there’s been an accident.’ And immediately my heart dropped.”
Minutes prior, Anthony, Leti and Kassidi were driving north on Interstate 75, when they were involved in a six-car crash on the highway. According to Ohio State Highway Patrol, a silver Chevy Malibu was heading southbound on I-75 and hit a black Dodge Dakota from behind, forcing the Dodge across the center median and into two cars in the northbound lane. One of those cars, a red Jeep Cherokee, burst into flames on impact. Anthony, Leti and Kassidi were inside the Jeep. Kassidi died from her injuries. Leti and Anthony survived, but needed lifesaving surgeries.
“You just think about every little thing that you could’ve done differently to have prevented it,” Alexa said. “So that just kept going through my head until I was able to see my mom.”
After the semester, Alexa returned home to Michigan and spent the summer months caring for her mother, before returning to school for her senior season. Suppressing her feelings, Alexa went through most of the year knowing she wasn’t right. But in April 2023, as she approached the year anniversary of the crash, she unraveled.
“I was just a head case,” Alexa said. “I was freaking out. I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I was a caretaker all summer, and then you jump right back in to preseason and you have no time to think. I was pushing through, but I didn’t realize I wasn’t taking care of myself.”
Her assistant coach convinced her she needed help, and personally escorted her to the small office at the back of the gym.
Had Alaina Schmitt been asked, five years ago, how she’d spend her Friday afternoons in the fall, she would’ve never responded by saying, “out on the golf course.”
Yet here she is, on a chilly October day, on the practice putting green at Woodhaven Country Club in Louisville.
“A few years ago, had you told me I would be building my entire life around golf, I would’ve told you that you were insane,” Alaina said.
Alaina is a graduate student on Bellarmine University’s golf team, currently on pace to have the best career scoring average in program history. She also holds the record for the lowest single-round score in program history. Not bad for someone who hated the sport when she was a kid.
“The only time I touched a club as a kid was in seventh grade when I played nine holes with my dad at Oxmoor Country Club,” Alaina said. “And we didn’t even finish nine holes because I hated it. I thought it was boring, and I really just had no interest. I played softball all my life, and that’s such a fast-paced game that golf came across as boring to me.”
But everything changed during her freshman year at Murray State University in western Kentucky. Alaina missed playing sports and gave golf another chance.
This time, she fell head over heels.
She practiced nonstop, playing golf every day with the hopes of earning a college scholarship. After just seven months, her score was already down into the 80s. She went back to Murray State and took a job at a golf course so she could continue to practice. Alaina came back home to Louisville during fall semester break and broke the news to her parents.
“I had this whole plan,” Alaina said. “I had this list of reasons why I wanted to play golf and I did these mock interviews with my friends about how the conversation was going to go [with my parents]. I just remember sitting at the kitchen table and crying. My mom said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I told her, “I want to play golf in college.’”
She transferred home to Bellarmine in the spring of 2020 and walked on to the golf team, determined to earn her keep. In addition to daily practice, Alaina read books, practiced yoga, changed her diet and began to study sports psychology. She even began seeing a counselor on Bellarmine’s campus, in an attempt to prioritize her mental health.
“Since I started golf so late, I wanted to do everything I could to get better,” Alaina said. “Not only has it helped my golf game, but it’s also helped in other aspects of my life, and I can’t imagine my life without it now.”
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In the spring, Alaina’s counselor stepped away from her role. She recommended Alaina go to see the social worker in the small room behind the basketball gym.
Nervously, Alaina agreed.
Alexa and Alaina are two of roughly 200 Bellarmine athletes who’ve worked with Paula M. Struck, LCSW, since she arrived on campus in October 2022. Paula is a licensed clinical social worker for Norton Sports Health and spends 100% of her work time on Bellarmine’s campus, helping student-athletes with their mental health and mental performance.
“Initially, it was just about learning how I navigate getting in front of teams, introducing myself and becoming a part of athletics,” Paula said.” “But it’s definitely gotten easier to develop relationships and make mental health just as much part of the dialogue as physical health.”
Norton Sports Health is the official medical provider of Bellarmine University athletics. As part of that partnership, athletes have the opportunity to work with Paula in both the team and individual settings. She also works with coaches and staff, educating them on how to support the athletes both on and off the field.
Paula’s work spans several disciplines, including training in mental illness, complex trauma, gender diversity, mental performance and mindfulness-based practices. She’s also a registered yoga teacher and incorporates aspects of breath work, meditation and relaxation into her practice.
“The truth is that addressing mental health is true resiliency,” Paula said. “Because if you see an issue and a problem and you work through that, that’s rebounding. That’s coming back stronger, and that’s the definition of resiliency. And so, being present and being integrated, having that dialogue turns [mental health] from a secret to an open discussion.”
According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 7 10- to 19-year-olds experience a mental disorder. Depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.
“It’s paramount,” Paula said, referring to paying attention to mental health and having an on-campus resource. “It’s the way to help student-athletes access necessary resources to be the best version of themselves they can be. Knowing the statistics, and knowing the pressures that student-athletes face, having a person integrated and ingrained in the program and who can understand what those additional risk factors and what those additional pressures or stressors are for them, and making that person accessible, is clutch.”
Alexa and Alaina have continued to meet regularly with Paula and have developed relationships with her that extend off the field of play. Their conversations have become more life-based, working with Paula as they prepare for careers after graduation.
They’re also trying to encourage their teammates to take similar leaps, to walk through the gray double doors in the back of Knights Hall and prioritize their mental health.
“There’s been such a stigma around [mental health],” Alaina said. “It’s like, ‘If you see a counselor or if you advocate for your mental health, then that means you’re weak.’ And I think it’s the opposite. You’re very strong for being so vulnerable, and I think it’s a great way to really help yourself and help others too. If I can help somebody else, then I need to do it.”
“Honestly, I used to believe in the stigma of ‘I don’t need therapy,’” Alexa said. “Now, looking back on it, it can only help you. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to debrief with someone who you know isn’t going to tell your secrets to everyone. It’s OK to tell them that you’re struggling and not feel like you’re being judged. I have never felt like I’m being judged. I have never felt like ‘I have so many problems’. If anything, she makes me feel like I have fewer problems and validates that my problems are OK to have.”
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