NH Business: Ryan Day coaches Ohio State and preaches resilience

Mar. 18—NOW IN his seventh year as a football coach at Ohio State University, Ryan Day has enjoyed the longest stretch of stability in his professional career.

Before landing his first job with the Buckeyes as co-offensive coordinator in 2017, the Manchester native and his family moved eight times in 12 years.

"If you want to test your mental health, try that," Day said Thursday during a luncheon talk at the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester.

Day was tested long before he began coaching football. His visit to the club Thursday was to promote mental health awareness, particularly among young people.

"I lost my father to suicide when I was 9 years old, and for many years it was very confusing, not only to try to understand what led my father to take his own life, but how I was supposed to feel and cope with the loss," said Day, who became Ohio State's head coach in 2019.

"There were days when I would feel angry, other days resentful, other days sad. Mental illness was poorly understood 30 years ago and still remains so to this day."

His wife, Nina, who like her husband was a competitive athlete, struggles with anxiety. The couple has three children.

"So we thought it would be a really good idea to choose a profession that would provide a quiet, stress-free life," Day joked.

At the prodding of his wife, the Days got actively involved in promoting mental health among the Buckeyes roster and in their Ohio community shortly after they arrived, he told the group of 230 people gathered in the club's gymnasium.

He cited a statistic that half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14, and that about 1 in 4 adolescents experience mental disorders that result in severe impairment, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Day, who played quarterback for Central High and the University of New Hampshire, was prompted to get more involved in mental health advocacy after a recruiting trip to an Ohio high school.

He arrived to find that while the coach was available to meet him, the school was otherwise empty. Classes had been canceled that day due to a student suicide, something the school had experienced several times already that year.

"I remember getting on the phone and calling Nina, and saying, 'There's something really wrong here.'"

When Day was named head coach, he realized he would have a strong platform to talk about the issue.

Last summer the couple announced a $1 million donation to the OSU Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine at Ohio State through their Nina and Ryan Day Resilience Fund, which focuses on young adults.

The fund will help support the work of Dr. Luan Phan, chair of the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, who is studying how resilience is a factor in treating mental health.

"Dr. Phan wants to learn more about why some people are able to grow from adversity and even thrive on it, while others just don't have that ability."

Day also aims to help reduce the stigma of mental illness. When he talks to his players, he compares sports injuries to mental health needs.

"If you roll your ankle, then you know how to get it fixed. You go to the trainer, you get it taped up and you move on. If you tear your ACL it requires surgery and then a nine-month rehab," Day said.

To change the stigma, we need to embrace mental health the same way.

"If someone comes down with cancer, you put your arms around them, you hug their family members. But if someone talks about some kind of mental illness we just kind of look away. We don't want to talk about it."

Kara LaMarche, a mental health educator and "hockey mom" wanted to know whether kids are "soft" these days.

Day interrupted her before she could finish: "They are soft."

The room erupted with laughter.

But it was a serious question. OK, so if kids are soft, what do you do about it?

"I think that's the whole resilience part of this," Day said, comparing mental health to strength training. "If you're building up this resilience you can take on so much."

It's all about embracing "productive discomfort."

"I think we need to put (kids) in as many uncomfortable situations as possible to build that resilience up. And whether it's physically, mentally emotionally, all those types of things, I don't think we need to be soft with them," Day said.

"I think we need to push them to be harder and make them uncomfortable."

Mike Cote is senior editor for news and business. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

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