Rosemont, Ill. – Three hundred and forty. That’s how many days it’s been since Illinois first instituted its state of emergency proclamation in response to COVID-19. Stop and think about that number for a minute. Three hundred and forty. It’s hard to visualize the time lost since our world was irreversibly changed. It’s even harder to conceptualize all of the struggles we’ve faced as individuals to reshape our lives to fit into this change. From the small ones – try to think back to the last time you were able to sit down in a restaurant – to the big ones. Think of the last time you’ve given your grandparents a hug. The last time your child walked into the school and that paranoia wasn’t running rampant in your mind.
Think of the last time you felt like you had everything all together.
Three hundred and forty.
You have to go back just as far to find the origins for Project Thrive. In the midst of a cataclysmic global event the likes of which has never been seen in modern times, the Chicago Wolves launched Project Thrive in early February with the intent to open up dialogue in the community regarding a crisis both well known and yet severely underreported in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak: the mental well-being of our community.
HOW IT STARTED
Leslie Metcalf, B2B & Group Event Specialist for the Wolves, partnered with Eric Kussin of the #SameHere Global Mental Health Movement to spearhead the project from an idea into a united front intended not only to raise awareness in our community of the importance of talking about our mental well-being but by changing the conversation entirely. Previously, Metcalf and the Wolves have joined with #SameHere in single session events to get the dialogue started, but as the need for a continued discussion rose with the state of the world, Metcalf and Kussin got to work.
Metcalf explains the origins of Project Thrive:
“The one and done left me feeling like it wasn’t doing enough. As we left our offices due to the pandemic around St. Pat’s Day, and our season was cancelled, I began to think about engaging our fans through virtual opportunities as many teams have since done. Speaking to my fellow team mates we brought the template to Eric to see if he thought it was workable. With his oversight and advice – we then brought the idea of Project Thrive to our leadership – making the request that this program be something we continue to do as part of who we are as a team in our community – not just for a one-time event.”
Through their social media platforms, the Wolves have encouraged people to join virtual zoom sessions to come together as a community and let their voices be heard, to let their stories be told, or to just lend their ears to those in need. The first presenter of Project Thrive, Kussin, was able to reach out to participants on a personable level by sharing his own battles with his mental health in the past.
Years ago, Kussin had it all – the picture of the American Dream. A top athlete in high school. An executive position in the sports world. Friends. Success. It seemed like he had it all – anyone looking from the outside would have given anything to have that kind of life.
Kussin went on to explain how, following a seemingly normal day at work, he went to lay in bed with a foggy head. Days went on. Kussin couldn’t remember his own niece’s name. Weeks. Months. He couldn’t name more than two or three NBA teams – franchises in the field he worked in.
Three hundred and forty sound like a lot?
Nine hundred and twelve. That’s how many days Kussin remained in his bed.
“Your brain goes to these weird places because you’re in hell.” he explained. “When you don’t have any of those original thoughts, your brain feels like it’s failing you, and you feel like you’re in the pits of human existence, and there is no coming out of it.”
After two and a half years of living with these thoughts in a vicious cycle, Kussin and his loved ones sought help. At first, he admitted to feeling hopeless – a lost cause. The “magic cure-all pill” didn’t exist for him, no matter how many prescriptions were written up by countless doctors he visited. One thought stuck out to him to keep his battle going when all seemed lost:
“Stay alive. Don’t let this thing beat you.”
What changed for Kussin wasn’t a miracle pill or enough therapy to shock his brain into function, but the entire shift in perspective on his condition. He learned to recondition his mind in the way an athlete must recondition their body following a serious physical injury, and the results weren’t instant but they were noticeable. A premium was put on rewiring his perspective, and for the first time in years, Kussin had control.
That perspective is the core of the #SameHere movement that Kussin continued to champion along with the Wolves. It’s the story he shared on LinkedIn that allowed him and Metcalf to connect. It’s the beating heart of Project Thrive that drives the conversation that your mental health is not composed solely of a diagnosis or your symptoms: it is the experiences that we individually go through each and every day, no matter how big or how small they are. Those fights and the way we battle them vary from person to person, but we all are battling. Each and every day, we wake up and we fight.
#SameHere exemplifies that. Our battles are our own, but our experiences are the same. No matter how alone we feel or how dark and terrifying that world is, we are in this together.
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) February 12, 2021
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
But where do we go from here? How do we start to change the conversation? Project Thrive puts an emphasis on educating and changing the culture of how we as a community view mental health and the people who struggle with it beyond a diagnosis label. It doesn’t just stop there, though. It’s about planting the seeds in the community now so that years down the road our friends, neighbors, and family can step forward for the help they need.
Justin Goldman joined up with Kussin and Metcalf to support the Project in his own unique way. His nonprofit organization – The Goalie Guild – focuses on providing resources and help for goalies under the intense stress and pressure naturally occurring in their position that may struggle with their mental health as a result. Their own initiative to #LiftTheMask fits in perfectly with Project Thrive, and Goldman was excited at the opportunity to help out.
“When you put the mask on, even though there are a bunch of players, it’s just you and your thoughts in the crease, and no one knows how you’re responding to the game. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be defined by your wins or losses – goalies should be having fun too.”
In an effort to encourage participation, the Goalie Guild has pledged to contribute $500: the fees for the first fifty goalies to sign up to the events for Project Thrive, which meet every other Thursday and will continue into April.
What if we don’t have that kind of pocket change lying around? I would assume most of us don’t, but I know one tool everyone has these days to help spread the word – social media. The Wolves, #SameHere, and Project Thrive encourage anyone and everyone to share their experiences with the world, and there is no more powerful tool for someone who is struggling than to be made aware that they are not alone in fighting their battles.
“We will continue to post resources as they become available for those who joined in the sessions and those who can’t make them. Resources will be found at bit.ly/WolvesProjectThrive.” Metcalf encouraged. “Check back often as new content will be added as discovered, learned, etc. And since the sessions will be ongoing and we plan to repeat certain topics there will be more opportunities as we move forward to attend. We are also working to release copies of the sessions to those who register but can’t make a specific session.”
HELPING IS HEALING
When we ask ten people to define what mental health is, we are likely to get ten different answers. Here’s the kicker – none of them are inherently “wrong.” Part of the issue has been trying to throw a blanket definition over an issue that we all experience differently, but in that shared experience we can begin to heal. Mental illness is just one place on the plane of mental health, and it’s the goal of Project Thrive to reach out, to educate, and most importantly to help.
While the origins of our traumas may be uniquely our own, the impacts of those traumas on our brains/bodies are not.
— #SameHere Global Mental Health Movement 501c3 (@SameHere_Global) February 18, 2021
Because we’re all battling. One day, three hundred, or so many that you’ve just lost count. That weight stays with us, and it’s our burden to carry. Think again of what we’ve held on to. What we’ve kept inside. The battles we’ve had to fight. Every new one is an extra weight, and over time it will bury us if we allow it. In this day of uncertainty and paranoia that it becomes paramount for us to share our experiences, because we don’t know who out there needs so desperately to know that they’re not alone. Relieving that burden, sharing that experience, and coming together in an understanding – could there be anything more empowering in this world?
This is our battle, and we all have the power to win.
For more information on Project Thrive, you can access their resources and sign up for future sessions here.