Former Standout Student-Athlete Embraces Challenge of Eliminating Stigma Around Mental Health
Ivy Watts ’15 was a star on the track and in the classroom. Still, she battled anxiety and the fear she was falling short of expectations. Today, she is a sought-after mental health advocate who shares her story to help others discover the path to mental wellness.
February 14, 2020
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Ivy Watts ’15 was a student at the University of New Haven, she hated public speaking – especially after taking a public speaking course. Today, she is a sought-after mental health advocate who has spoken to students across the country.
A stellar student-athlete as a member of the Chargers women’s track and field team, she received the Distinguished Student Scholar Athlete Award two years in a row, was an All-American, Northeast-10 Woman of the Year, and a top 30 finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award – all while remaining an outstanding student. But, she says, at the time, these accomplishments were marred by her struggle with anxiety.
"Somehow, none of those things were enough for me, because of my idea of perfection," she explains. "A lot of the time, that joy was lined with pain, self-doubt, and self-hate."
At the time, Watts didn’t have the tools she needed to practice self-care, and she didn’t discuss her mental health with others. In retrospect, she believes discussing it with her teammates and coaches would have enabled her to feel empowered to talk about her challenges. She considers this – as well as the importance of hard work and teamwork – to be among the most important lessons she learned as a student-athlete.
"Sharing my story means more to me than I could have ever imagined."Ivy Watts ’15
Despite these challenges, Watts says she enjoyed her time as a student. She has fond memories as a student-athlete, from celebrating her Charger pride at Homecoming to victories with her teammates.
"My favorite memory would have to be when we were All-American in the 4 x 400 relay at Nationals in Detroit in 2013," she said. "I remember crying on the podium. All of our hard work had finally paid off. My experiences at the University taught me a lot about myself and put me on a path to self-love and self-acceptance."
Tragically, it was the death of one of Watts’s former coaches, who died by suicide, that led to her first speaking engagement. Because of her background in psychology and her experience as a student-athlete, she was invited to return to the University to speak to student-athletes about suicide prevention and self-care. Though she did not share her story, she knew she had made an impact, and she began to think about how she could use her own struggles to help students achieve mental wellness.
Passionate about helping others and promoting mental health wellness, Watts started a blog called Beautifully Simply You because she didn’t want others to struggle in silence like she had. She wanted to encourage others to see that they are "beautifully, simply amazing, just the way they are."
"For most of my life, I struggled with anxiety that went unnoticed because I strived for perfection – and people just saw the ‘perfect’ side of me," she explains. "My goal is to normalize the conversation around mental health. I think the biggest takeaway is that there is hope, even when we feel like things will never get any better. If I can provide hope for just one person, then everything I do is more than worth it."
Watts, who left Partners Healthcare in July to pursue motivational speaking fulltime, has been speaking to high schools, colleges, and universities across the country – including at the University of New Haven. Her message has reached more than 8,000 students and 3,000 administrators, and she has spoken at NCAA-sponsored programs.
Although she says the stigma around mental health has lessened, it is still a real concern across the country. Fears – including judgment, removal from a sport they are passionate about, or being seen as weak – as well as societal pressures to achieve, can make it difficult for student-athletes to seek help.
"My experiences at the University taught me a lot about myself and put me on a path to self-love and self-acceptance."Ivy Watts ’15
Watts wants students know that it is okay not to be okay, that there is help available, and that they have a voice. She says some of the most meaningful feedback she has received was that she made students feel understood – and less alone.
"This has been by far, the most beautiful journey of my life," she said. "I use the pain that I experienced – where I felt so alone and that things would never get better – as well as the joy I experienced in finding self-love, to help others. I wake up every day and get to help other people, and that has always been a goal in my life."
Watts plans to continue to share her story, and she is working on establishing mental health wellness platforms to help all students. She plans to launch her websites, StudentsMindsMatter and AthletesMindsMatter, this summer, and she hopes this will empower students to start their own mental wellness journeys.
"Without the struggles I have had, I wouldn’t have my story to tell, and I wouldn’t be living out my passion," she said. "Sharing my story means more to me than I could have ever imagined. It means I get to be part of making the world a better place, and the thought of that warms my heart."