Sarah Watson high school senior photo

Sophomore Sarah Watson steering mental health initiatives on AU campus

Published on May 30, 2023

From great tragedy has come a powerful mission for Sarah Watson. The Ashland University sophomore has made it her personal goal to make mental health awareness a priority for all students on the AU campus, another important step in what has become a life calling.

Watson began her current worthy pursuit during the 2022-23 academic year, bravely sharing the personal story of her father’s mental struggles and suicide with teammates on the Eagles’ women’s soccer team, while emphasizing the importance of mental health.

“Sarah has been able to use her platform as a women’s soccer player at AU to share her story with not only our team, but many on campus. Her message has helped lower barriers when it comes to mental health and allowed others to feel more comfortable being able to share their own stories,” said Cayleb Paulino, head women’s soccer coach. “Getting to know Sarah through the recruiting process and now coaching her, I am very proud of the message she continues to spread on mental health awareness.”

Sarah Watson

With the positive affirmation she received from coaches and teammates, Watson spread her message, “It’s OK to reach out for help. It’s OK not to be OK,” to others and also served as a peer educator for the wellness program. Still “feeling like there was not enough talk about mental health,” she applied for, and was excited to land, AU’s wellness intern position and fully intends to step up her efforts and reach a broader audience.

In 2023-24, Watson, in conjunction with the department of recreation and wellness, is hoping to make more of an impact as she has several new initiatives in the works:

  • Significantly increase the number of coaches, faculty, staff and students who receive QPR training, a suicide prevention training that stands for question, persuade and refer
  • Regular tabling to educate the AU community on mental health and related topics
  • Develop and promote outdoor recreation opportunities since getting outside is proven to enhance one’s mental wellness

“Sarah is an extremely impressive individual. She has taken a deeply painful personal situation and made it her mission to educate others about mental wellbeing,” said Janel Molnar, director of recreation and wellness at AU. “We are thrilled to have Sarah in the role as our wellness intern, as she is sure to make a large positive impact on campus.”

Watson’s passion for mental health stems from her own life experience. Her dad, who she emphasized was a wonderful father and her “absolute best friend,” struggled from bipolarism. A series of triggers caused him to stop taking his medication and he took his own life when she was 10 years old.

“Ever since my father passed away, I’ve always been this huge mental health advocate and telling people ‘It’s OK to reach out for help,’ ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’” said Watson, who is majoring in psychology with a minor in addictions.

It has taken several years of recovery for Watson to overcome her grief and become such a strong advocate, and she admits to still enduring her own daily battles. At 16, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, but by finding the right therapist, taking medication and listening to her own words, she has emerged healthy and as an inspirational force.

“If I didn’t choose myself, then I wouldn’t be here today. One day, I just opened up to my counselor. I needed help. He persuaded me to go back to therapy, and we ultimately decided that I go back on medication. It has made a world of difference, going back to therapy and everything. I preach mental health, and I finally listened to my own words and got the help that I need,” she said.

Watson credits other factors in maintaining her positive outlook. “Soccer has always been an outlet to me. I love the girls, love the support system. It lets me be who I am. Also, I journal. I’ve switched to positive-based journaling in the past two years, which has really helped.”

Reconciling with her faith, understandably difficult given the circumstances, has helped immensely as well. “I’m a Christian. I pray a lot. I talk to God for so long at night. I hated God after my dad died and stopped believing. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made to have that relationship with Him and it’s only growing stronger,” she explained.

Serving as the AU wellness intern is just a step, in what Watson expects to be a lifetime, of being a mental health advocate. In high school, she assisted with the Cincinnati branch of Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program. This summer, when not working at Skyline Chili, she is volunteering at Friendside, a counseling group.

Watson expects to make a career out of it. After completing her bachelor’s degree at AU, she is planning to get a master’s degree and become a licensed, and positive-based, therapist working with children or adults, possibly in a hospital setting.

“My end goal is to have my own charity, one that offers free therapy for people. Because therapy is so expensive that’s one of the barriers that stops others, they can’t afford medication or therapy,” she added.

Whatever the future holds, Watson has discovered her life calling, albeit born out of a traumatic experience.

“I just feel as though if I went through something this hard, why wouldn’t I use my experiences and knowledge that I have to help other people. I wasn’t going to continue to live life without changing the people around me and having a positive impact on the people around me, so I started being this huge mental health advocate,” she said. “And, I just want everyone to know it’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to reach out for help and it’s OK to see a therapist. It’s OK to be on medication. It’s OK to say that you need help.”