By Tris Wykes

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Hartford High junior Caroline Hamilton comes from a family of tough athletes. Her brothers, Tyler and Kyle, were three-sport standouts for the Hurricanes and play football at Bates College in Maine. 

Her father, Chris, is a former football player and Dartmouth College’s diving coach. Caroline plays field hockey and lacrosse and as the family’s little sister, learned early to overlook scraped knees and bruised elbows. 

Hartford High’s Caroline Hamilton competes in field hockey last fall. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Still, when Caroline Hamilton attended a 2019 athletic leadership conference in Burlington, she was immediately drawn to a presentation by students from nearby St. Michael’s College on reducing the stigma around mental health.

“I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life,” Hamilton said. “But it’s not part of the conversations around athletics. You suck it up and walk it off and that can be detrimental to people.

“There were times I couldn’t offer myself fully to a practice or game. I put up a pretty good front and if I was doing it, I knew there must be plenty of other athletes doing the same thing.”

Hamilton applied to the St. Michael’s group, known as Hope Happens Here, and was granted permission to start a chapter at Hartford High. Existing primarily for athletes, the group’s core of about 15 members meets roughly every two to three weeks and recently staged a 5k run at the school to help raise funds and awareness. It also made t-shirts that the girls basketball team wore for warmups last season.

Hamilton also hosts a podcast and recently posted its 12th episode. Recent in-person and online conversations have centered around Covid-19’s effect on student athletes. How to make them aware their struggles aren’t unique and to become aware of available resources?

“It was something I felt our school needed and could really benefit a lot of athletes,” said Hartford junior Maddie Withington, who attended the 2019 conference with Hamilton. “It’s good that athletes can share their stories with each other. There’s a lot of pressure and people have to live up to a lot of things and that’s different for everybody.”

Erin Stevens, a Hartford English teacher and assistant ice hockey coach, acts as an advisor to her school’s HHH chapter. She’s a former player at St. Michael’s who graduated a few years before the organization was founded there in 2015. It now has about 30 chapters, mainly at New England high schools and colleges.

“I just love that this generation is willing to talk about how it’s ok to not be ok,” Stevens said. “Given the isolation of (Covid-19) quarantine, I think a lot of things came to the surface for a lot of people, not just teenagers. 

“You can see the effects of a broken leg or sprained ankle, but you can’t see the effects of mental health struggle until it bubbles up. Something doesn’t look right or sound right and that’s what we want to prevent.”

Hartford High basketball players, including Maddie Withington, fourth from right, wear shirts provided by their school’s Hope Happens Here chapter. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Todd Bebeau, Hartford’s 23rd-year boys hockey coach and a Hanover High physical education teacher, appeared on the podcast’s eighth episode earlier this year. Bebeau discussed how he connected with a therapist about a year and a half ago and found confronting his anxiety and depression issues empowering.

“I share with my students and athletes that I’m flawed and imperfect and have days where I’m not so great,” said Bebeau, who cuts an imposing figure with his shaved head, piercing eyes and no-nonsense approach. “You’re never too old to get help or to admit that it will make you a better person. 

“It wasn’t easy for me. I’m a proud person… and maybe two or three years ago, I couldn’t have fathomed having a conversation like this.”

Caroline Hamilton said her own stress spiked during middle school. She began suffering panic attacks, often about things she couldn’t control. Irrational fears, such as family members dying, regularly crept into her thoughts. When she reached high school, Hamilton said she tried to cope by overloading herself with school, sports and theater.

“It feels like the whole world is caving in on you,” she said. “I took on everything, but that just added another layer of stress, and depression came along with that. I see a therapist now and there should be no shame in needing to talk to someone about how you’re feeling.”

Hartford High’s HHH podcasts can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/p7x7y58

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Hartford High physical education teacher Pete Driscoll, Lauren (LJ) Driscoll and Jenn Driscoll jog during the recent Hope Happens Here 5k run and walk. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.