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UAFS' Watkins helping raise awareness for student-athletes' mental health

The Greenwood alum is using her journey with mental health to aid other student-athletes who may be struggling to know that they are not alone.

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Playing Division I volleyball was a dream for Greenwood alum Hannah Watkins.

“Going into junior year, trying to get recruited, this is what I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my college career,” Watkins said.

After leading the Bulldogs to a state title in 2020, Watkins would make it to that level, signing with Central Arkansas.

Credit: Hannah Watkins
Watkins signed with Central Arkansas as part of their 2021 recruiting class.

“I wanted to play Division I volleyball just because I knew I could,” Watkins said.

But that D-1 dream turned into a nightmare her freshman fall.

“I actually got hurt, I dislocated my knee,” Watkins said. “I was completely out after that, and that kind of caused a disconnect between me and the coaches.”

Not being with the team led to a feeling of isolation and, combined with the other stresses of being a student-athlete, started to take a toll.

“I just started feeling kind of lonely and being three hours from home, it was kind of frustrating,” Watkins said. “I just started noticing I started going home every weekend, and I was at home, I felt like I was super happy. I felt like I could breathe, but when I was back at UCA, I felt like there was a weight on my chest. I’d walk in the gym and the smell of the hardwood gym would instantly make me want to cry.”

That feeling, among more concerning signs, led Watkins to find help.

“You look up the depression symptoms, and every box, I was checking,” Watkins said.

Watkins reached out to a friend to share what she was going through.

“He guided me with some resources and just told me, hey, you need to do what’s best for you,” Watkins said.  

And for Watkins, that was finishing the semester online and leaving UCA.

“I just knew if I wanted to be happy and not have the stress of being an athlete and actually make it a fun experience, I needed to come home,” Watkins said.

So she transferred to the University of Arkansas Fort-Smith, her first college offer in high school, to play for head coach Jane Sargent, who’s developed a special bond with Watkins.

“I tell her every day: she’s valued; she’s loved; she’s beautiful; she’s talented and she’s so worthwhile,” Sargent said, wiping a tear from her eyes. “I think that has drawn us closer… she’s just a wonderful person and I think she just needs that enforcement every single day.”

Now one season down with the Lions, Watkins is doing much better, and looking to help other student-athletes who may be struggling.

She hosted a mental health awareness night at a UAFS basketball doubleheader in the spring and founded the campus chapter of the Hidden Opponent, a group that "raises mental health awareness among student-athletes and addresses the stigma within sports culture," according to its website.

“We want the main focus to be athletes are humans,” Watkins said. “You’re not what your sport is. You are way more than that. That’s kind of how we’re moving forward with this. We think we can do that by having mental health awareness games and pushing this out on social media, making those awareness videos and having conversations with our athletes and coaches.”

The goal of those conversations is to deliver a simple message.

“We’re more than athletes,” Watkins said. “We’re human, and we’re enough.”

Watkins’ journey is perhaps best summarized by her head coach.

“My favorite saying is ‘Opportunity: a block of granite which was an obstacle in the path of the weak becomes a stepping stone in the path of the strong,’” Sargent said. “That’s what this is all about. We’re all going through something, and it's going to be ok.”

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