Mental health anti-stigma campaign receives $60k in funds to replicate across Pac-12 schools

NCAA feature articles, Pac-12 accolades, national and university awards, coverage in Sports Illustrated, calls for speaking engagements – the buzz is real. In the months since the launch of the mental health awareness campaign, Dam Worth It, co-founder Nathan Braaten has been indefatigable. And his efforts have earned him $60,000.

Now, the campaign gets real.

The Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative, which commits millions in funding each year for topics ranging from head trauma to nutrition, funded Oregon State University’s Dam Worth It to become an operational, comprehensive program on all Pac-12 campuses.

Dam Worth It – times twelve – will work to end the stigma around mental health through three pillars: education, resources and peer-based support. Dam Worth It will provide a step-by-step guide. And this college senior thought he was busy before…

Since the award, there’s been a nonprofit to establish, online mental health awareness learning modules to develop, marketing materials to develop, presentations to plan, and extensive travel and outreach to peer groups at universities near and far.

“It’s kind of been crazy and amazing to me, the real-world implications of what I’ve been learning and figuring out,” Braaten said. “We worked so hard last year to get the message out about ending the stigma associated with mental health issues, and now the idea that we can move it to such a grand scale – it’s pretty amazing.”

Braaten and his co-founder Taylor Ricci formed Dam Worth It after they both lost teammates to suicide and suffered under the pressures of academics and elite athletics. Through Dam Worth It, they opened up about their own feelings of isolation and inadequateness, and their twitter feeds have exploded with stories and thanks from students and athletes around the country.

In the buildup to submitting the Pac-12 grant, Braaten turned to the Launch Academy student incubator, a program of InnovationX – OSU’s hub for student entrepreneurs. Launch Academy supports students with training and other resources in their quest for startup funding and will award up to $5,000 for top ideas. Braaten’s Launch Academy team received feedback on the grant application, and winning the sizable award from the Pac-12 speaks at its own volume.

“Nathan is an incredibly motivated innovator and entrepreneur, but with a difference – he sees the big, difficult problems of our society and then jumps in with both feet to solve them,” said Dale McCauley, InnovationX program manager at the College of Business.

“He is motivated to make a positive change in the world, but he does so with a business and entrepreneurial mindset,” McCauley said. “He understands the need for a business model for his nonprofit, and he approaches Dam Worth It from that perspective.”

The finance major, who plays Division I soccer and keeps a near perfect GPA, has not turned down a single opportunity when it comes to raising awareness about Dam Worth It. Following a summer internship at Nike, Braaten is back to the grindstone. He’s working to connect with student governance bodies and faculty networks on campuses from Washington down the west coast to the other side of the Rockies.

Fortunately, his background gives the roadmap he needs to build the right task list, ranging from product development to the preparation and pitch to find strategic partners. “My business studies are helping out significantly, especially my experiences with entrepreneurship in the college,” Braaten said.

Braaten, who once clearly envisioned himself pursuing a career in investment banking or financial advising, is now committed to a quite atypical career route. “This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often,” Braaten said. “To be honest, I am really excited about it, and if it did turn into a full-time endeavor, I would have no hesitations to continue to grow Dam Worth It as far and wide as I can.

The hope is that they’ll be able to elevate the campaign to a national program in the long term – Braaten’s thinking maybe five years’ time.

And there is no reason to expect that broader community enthusiasm and support for Dam Worth It will slow. For example, the Institute for Sport and Social Justice has named Braaten and Ricci the winners of the 2018 Giant Steps Civic Leaders Award.

ISSJ, which seeks to use the power of sport to affect positive social change, includes among its hall of famers Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Jackie Robinson. Braaten and Ricci receive this award in a ceremony in Orlando, Florida, in October.

“Without a doubt, mental health is a public health topic,” Ricci said. “I believe that our focus on mental health from the public health lens contributes to the visionary aspect of our campaign. We can create change and improve health in these communities, and we can organize for a very broad reach.”

Ricci, a former gymnast and 2018 graduate from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, also is committed to Dam Worth It through the end of their grant cycle in July 2020 while she prepares to attend medical school.

Braaten and Ricci have been described as a “dream team” for the way their academic skills complement each other. Their shared experiences with student leadership groups as well as Division I athletics have allowed them to peek backstage at Pac-12 administrative setups and figure out how to get a version of Dam Worth It up and running beyond OSU.

One thing they seek is support from the alumni community with expertise in mental health and well-being. Dam Worth It is supported by OSU Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) on campus, and they will find similar structures at other campuses, too. But the entrepreneurs would benefit from additional guidance.

“We’ve talked about the importance of finding mentors. Mentorship is key for all entrepreneurs,” said Audrey Iffert-Saleem, director of InnovationX. “They need someone who has experience with establishing  a nonprofit as well as someone who can provide mental health expertise.”

Iffert-Saleem points out that this is the second company that Braaten has founded with Launch Academy support, which highlights the significance of a safe and supported resource platform that the college has built for entrepreneurial learning experiences.

“For most entrepreneurs, it takes a lot of iteration – and a few failures – to land on something that they can execute successfully,” Iffert-Saleem said. “It’s so important that we provide this environment for our students to launch their businesses, and mentors play a pivotal role. They help students move to a new idea and attain success more quickly.”

When it comes to what success looks like for Dam Worth It, we’re not measuring in dollars. Ricci explains that at the outset, she and Braaten made it a goal to save one life. They’ve received personal feedback that they’d done that, and more.

“We like to think that for every one of our direct messages, there are others that have found a way to get support,” Ricci said. “Our success will not lie in how many wristbands we hand out, or how many awards we receive. Our success will be measured by the people that say ‘thank you for sharing your story and giving me the courage to seek help.’”