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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

‘It’s okay to not be okay’: The story of Sarah Watson

Sarah Watson shares her story with the world in hopes of ending the stigma around mental health
Submitted by Sarah Watson
Watson won the Perseverance and Courage Award, an athlete who shows determination and persistence while overcoming challenges in their day-to-day life, at the Ashpy’s in the spring.   

September is Suicide Awareness Month, and this month holds an important place for sophomore soccer player Sarah Watson.  

When Watson was 8 years old, her father, Brian, was struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and several other personal factors. These triggers led to Brian’s death by suicide when Watson was just 10 years old.  

“It’s heartbreaking because everyone thinks my dad was a bad dad because of all the struggles he went through, but I know what he was going through wasn’t himself. It was mental illness overtaking him,” Watson explained. “My dad was my absolute best friend.” 

Losing a parent at such an early age is what caused Watson to reevaluate what she thought life was supposed to look like.  

“At that young age, I had only dreamed of me, my dad, and my mom being this one big family. I had to quickly adjust to just my mom and I,” she said. “I kind of took for granted and a lot of people take for granted having both of their parents still in their lives no matter if they are divorced or if they don’t see one of their parents a lot.” 

Watson and her mom, Heather, became best friends when learning how to navigate this new reality.  

“My mom was still obviously my mother, and I became close with her. She ended up becoming my best friend after my dad died,” Watson said. “She was my biggest supporter and who I leaned on quite a lot.” 

Watson and her mother relied heavily on each other during this time. They would go to group therapy together at Fernside, a grief counseling program for children and their parents/guardians. 

This past summer, Watson was able to serve as a camp counselor at two different Fernside locations. 

“Every mom loves to dote on their child, but to say that I am so proud of what she is doing is an understatement. She has taken a tragedy and turned it into a way to educate others about what mental health is; the importance of mental health; letting people know it is OK to not be OK; and your story is what you make it,” Heather explained. “She inspires me every single day.’’ 

Faith Leads the Way 

Growing up, Watson’s faith was a key part of her life. She was baptized and grew up going to church ever since she was born.  

However, when she lost her father, she lost her way in her faith. Watson didn’t know if she wanted to continue believing in God after her father died.  

“I questioned my faith a lot after my dad died because I didn’t understand why God put me through something like this and why it happened to me specifically,” Watson said. 

She constantly asked herself and God the question, “if I went through this then why did I go through this?” 

Her belief in God was reaffirmed when she decided to go through confirmation class at church.  

“It was one of the best decisions I ever made. That was kind of where it started again and where I found the why behind what happened to me,” she said. “I don’t think God puts a person through hard things unless you can handle them and unless it is going to be your testimony for the future.” 

Watson decided it was her calling to help others and let them know they are not alone. 

“I got a sign from God. If I went through this then why wouldn’t I use this to help others and make a difference,” she said. “I just don’t believe I went through something like that to not help others.” 

Making a difference on the field 

A big issue in the world right now is the mental health of student-athletes. Several student-athletes have taken their own lives at universities around the country because they have felt helpless, but Watson is using her own experience to help fellow athletes. 

When Watson joined the women’s soccer team, she stepped up into the role of the mental health advocate for the team. 

“Going in Cayleb [Paulino, head coach] knew my story and knew I was a huge advocate. He gave me that platform and he also let me take the wheels on our team as the mental health person and the person that anybody could come to when they needed anything mental-wise or just a friend to talk to,” Watson said.  

Head coach of the women’s soccer team, Cayleb Paulino, has noticed a shift of the atmosphere of the team since Watson has taken on the mental health role. 

“Her message of ‘it’s okay to not be okay’ has really allowed players to open up and express when things are not going well,” Paulino said. “[She] created a safe place for others to have conversations.” 

Watson’s constant advocacy for mental health can be felt and heard by everyone, especially her teammates. 

“Sarah can agree with this, but I constantly tell everyone, especially our teammates, that everyone needs a “Sar-Bear”,” junior forward Avery Rosso explained. “She has such an important role on our team, and I truly believe she is what makes our team so much closer. She is always the first person to check in on you, the first person you can go to when you are struggling with anything, and ultimately just one of the best teammates you could ever ask for. I strive every day to be as encouraging and as kind-hearted as Sarah is.” 

Watson’s trials haven’t gone unnoticed, most specifically by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, SAAC, board. 

At the Ashpy’s, a student-athlete reward ceremony held at AU in the spring, Watson was given the Perseverance and Courage Award. 

“When we (the SAAC Board) were trying to decide on the athlete who has demonstrated ongoing determination and persistence while overcoming challenges in their day-to-day life we knew instantly that no one is more deserving of this award than Sarah Watson,” said Rosso. “She has taken such a tragic event in her own life and has been able to turn it into helping others as she continues to share her story. I strongly believe she will continue to be this amazing, well-spoken, and encouraging human not only here at Ashland but wherever life may take her.” 

Winning this award was a huge realization moment for Watson.  

“That was huge for me because I had always questioned if what I was doing was working and if my advocacy was even getting to anybody. That was such a big moment for me like yes, it is even if it is one person at a time or just one person. That still makes a difference,” Watson said. 

Ending the Stigma 

While Watson has made a difference on the field, her reach goes beyond the soccer pitch and into the Ashland community. 

Watson is the wellness intern for the Recreation and Wellness program for the academic school year.  

“A wellness intern is about promoting physical and mental wellbeing all around campus. I thought there was a void, an empty spot for specifically mental well-being not just on campus but in my opinion the community and the world,” Watson explained.  

Her goals for this position are to “implement more mental health on campus and make it more than just a stigma, especially within athletes as well as nonathletes.” 

Janel Molnar, director of Recreational Services, came to know Watson through her time as a Peer Educator and saw her passion for mental health.  

“Sarah feels as though she must use her personal experiences to share her story and educate others,” Molnar said. “She is a true mental health advocate and is not afraid to speak up when she feels as though more attention should be placed on this.”  

One of the ways Watson is bringing attention to mental health is through Instagram. 

In 2022, Watson created an Instagram account, “@you.r.notalone”, which allows people to privately message Watson. She then will post their messages anonymously to let them know they are not alone, and other people are going through the same thing you are. 

“It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be on medication,” Watson said. “I don’t think my dad thought it was a burden and he needed to be strong. I thought that at times too and that I couldn’t be seen as what people think is weak, but having a mental illness to me is not weak. In my opinion, it is a strength to be able to say you need help and that they are not okay.”

If you are struggling and need someone to talk to, Watson’s email is open to everyone [email protected] as well as her social medias @itssarahw and @you.r.notalone. 

“Not only is our team proud of her but Ashland University is proud of her, her family, her friends, and most importantly we know her dad would be too,” Rosso concluded. 

Bible quotes Watson lives by: 

Habakkuk 3:19 

2 Corinthians 12:9 

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    Barry W FortuneSep 27, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    Great story. Very well organized