The Importance of Tough Conversations

Caleb Jarema is a sophomore from Pinckney, Michigan and a member of the University of Michigan Track and Cross Country teams. With one year of college running experience under his belt, Jarema sat down with Sack the Stigma to talk about the importance of athlete mental health, and shared a personal story to honor a high school teammate who died by suicide.

Trigger Warning: This article contains a discussion on suicide that some readers may find distressing. There will be another warning before the content is presented to allow reading solely of the interview on Jarema’s personal experiences, if preferred. 

Brooke Woodrum, Sack the Stigma: As a freshman, how has the transition from high school to college athletics and academics been? 

Caleb Jarema: The transition has definitely had its ups and downs, which I’d say is pretty typical for most people. A big change for track has been the higher volume of running in college. It’s more running than what I did in high school, so it took a little bit of time to adjust to. Competitions have also been up and down: I’ve had good races, but I’ve had bad ones, too. The adjustment has not always been the smoothest, but it was to be expected. Academics wise, I’ve had a similar experience. The courses are more rigorous than in high school, so I’ve had to learn to manage my time and use my resources. My first semester, everything took some getting used to, but the transition to my second semester was definitely more positive. 

STS: Are there any additional challenges you’ve faced with balancing athletics and academics in college, in comparison to high school?

Jarema: In high school, I never really had any issues with balancing sports and academics, since the workload wasn’t as heavy. When I got to college, it was nice to see that things were more flexible with getting to create our own class schedules, but the workload is heavier. Sometimes managing academics and athletics on my own can be difficult, so I have met with my academic advisor, which has been useful, and I’ve also had some tutoring, which has helped a lot. Another important thing has been staying open with my coach, just to let him know if I ever need to change things up to keep a better balance of running and school. 

STS: How does stress in your life affect your track performance?

Jarema: Running is a very mental sport, so the biggest thing for me has been separating my personal life from running. If school is stressing me out, or something else in my life is, I try to separate that from my sport. However, this doesn’t always happen easily. Sometimes you show up to practice, stressed out, and it affects your performance. For me, having a positive mindset while running is really important. If you are already feeling negative going into a new day of practice, you really aren’t going to want to be there and you won’t enjoy it. I always try to reset before practice, going into it with a positive mindset, so I can be the best version of myself every day. Running is a way I relieve stress, especially with getting outside and being active with my teammates, so it’s important for me to separate it from things in my personal life.

STS: What are some mental health practices you partake in to prepare for a meet?

Jarema: I always make sure the physical aspects of my race are figured out first, so then I can move onto the mental part. I have a journal that I have started using this semester, which has been helpful. I also started going to our sports psychologist to focus more on the mental aspect of my running, and we have been talking about using imagery scripts to help get into the mindset of a race, so I am ready on meet day. Imagery and visualization are important to my pre-race routine, so I have been working on that a lot. 

STS: There is a lot of stigma around mental health today, especially online, for athletes at all levels. How could the portrayal of athlete mental health in the media be improved?

Jarema: I think mental health in the media is trending in the right direction. Growing up, I never really thought about mental health until a stressful time during my senior year. Since then, a lot of professional athletes have started to come out and talk about their mental health. Giannis (Antetokounmpo) talked about how he almost quit basketball, even when he was at the top of his game. This was similar to an experience I had, because during my senior year, I won the State Championship and I was running my best, but I wasn’t doing well mentally. I wasn’t enjoying running and it was the closest I’ve ever been to quitting. It’s cool to see such a high profile athlete talk about his mental health struggles that other people can relate to, and I think the NBA has started to have a bigger conversation about mental health as a whole, which is great. Conversation about mental health is important, so it needs to spread to other sports. Athletes are people just like us, so having conversations with bigger athletes and bigger sports to show that would definitely help.  


Trigger Warning: The rest of the interview contains a discussion on suicide that may be distressing or upsetting to some readers. Please practice self-care if you choose to continue reading. 

During Jarema’s senior year of high school, a fellow student and track teammate tragically took his own life. Jarema shared his personal story and reaction to this tragedy, in hopes of raising awareness for mental health. Jarema hoped to use this platform as a special way to honor the life of his former-teammate and to create change in the way mental health is talked about. 

Jarema: Well, it was in the fall of my senior year, around September, and I was in the car with my mom on the way to an eye doctor appointment. My mom is actually a track coach at my high school, so she often knew what was going on with the teams. She asked me if I knew this one kid on the team, and she mentioned the name of someone I’ve known since I was a little kid. I said yes, I did know him, but I could tell when she asked that something was kind of off about the way she asked it. She didn’t say anything more, so the conversation just kind of ended there, and then I went into my appointment. 

After my appointment, I walked back to the car, and as soon as I got in, my mom just broke down. She told me that the teammate she mentioned earlier had taken his own life. Immediately, I was shocked. He was never an over-the-top competitor in track, he was always just a friend to go to who had a positive mindset. He had fun at track and he made the team atmosphere better. Hearing about his passing was one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with. Before, I had never dealt with anything like this, so to have a teammate take his own life was very hard. 

The situation really opened my eyes to mental health because I realized how much others close to you could be struggling without you even knowing it’s happening. I definitely had a really tough time handling it– I couldn’t sleep for almost two months without waking up and thinking about it. It was such a shock to our whole community, so it was hard for everybody. Afterwards, as a school, we started doing more things to prioritize mental health. Raising awareness for mental health was a great way to honor him.

STS: How do you hope his story and your story will continue to help others?

Jarema: I feel like the most important thing is talking. I was super scared to tell anybody I was struggling, even with my classmates who all went through it with me. It took a long time before I told anybody I was having a tough time coping. In my teammate’s situation, he didn’t get the help that he needed, so we need to raise awareness that it’s okay to talk about mental health. There is such a stigma around mental health, and there doesn't need to be. I think every person thinks they’re alone in what they’re going through, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who hasn’t struggled with mental health one way or another–whether it be competition or just daily life. There is no person that isn’t struggling with some sort of mental challenge. 

STS: Why do you think it is important to Sack the Stigma?

Jarema: It’s never worth it for someone to take their own life or to go through things alone. My first college semester, there was a month of the season where I started to perform poorly which led me to have a hard time with my mental health. I was basing my self-worth on my performance, which is never a good thing. I was scared to reach out to anybody, but one day, an upperclassman teammate shared a mental struggle he was having, which encouraged me to open up about how I had been struggling too. He talked to me about it and shared a personal experience he had that was very similar, so now I have a good person to go to. This has been a game changer for me: It’s been great having people in my life to talk to about what I’m going through. I see a huge difference between now and that month when I wasn’t sharing my struggles with people. I feel better mentally every day and I’m performing better. Having better mental health will absolutely translate to feeling better in your sport, so ultimately, there’s no downside to talking about your mental health. 

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Jarema: I just try to be what that upperclassman teammate is to me, for other people. He set a great example of how to be a good person for others to talk to. He gave me some good advice, but he didn’t tell me that he was going to fix my problems or anything. He was just there to be someone to talk to, which was super important to me. I talk to my roommate a lot about how we want to be kids on the team that others can go to, to talk about anything that they want. I want to encourage people that it’s okay to have those tough conversations. 

Mental health can often feel like a place of isolation and unfamiliarity: it could feel as if you are struggling alone. However, as Jarema advocates in honor of his late teammate, having people you trust to talk to about your mental health can help you realize you are far from alone. It is important to know people you can have hard conversations with, and also to be a trustworthy person that others can go to. In Jarema’s words, “There is no downside to talking about your mental health.”

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