How Ryan Day's past inspired a push to raise awareness about mental health

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ryan Day can conjure up only a few specific memories of his father. He recalls that Ray Day owned a convenience store in the Manchester, New Hampshire, area and remembers him loving the Red Sox. Recently, Ryan Day was thrilled to see a home movie from the 1980s of the two of them playing baseball on Hampton Beach.

“He was a regular guy,” Ryan Day said. “And then one day in January, he didn’t come home. Life changed forever after that.”

Ray Day died by suicide in 1988. Ryan Day was 9 years old at the time and had two younger brothers, Chris (7) and Tim (5). That singular moment shaped his life more than any other.

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Over the years, Ryan Day’s emotions over the suicide of his father evolved through phases of anger, resentment and confusion. He recalls occasional playground teasing and being upset watching his youth basketball teammates run to their fathers at the conclusion of their games. “I’d get pissed,” he said. “How come I can’t have a father? I used to get angry that way about it.”

As the years went on, and the portrait of his father’s struggles with depression became clearer, Ryan Day came to better understand mental health and the stigmas attached to discussing it openly in society. So soon after Day became the full-time head coach at Ohio State in December, he and his wife, Nina, decided they were going to use that powerful philanthropic platform to bring the discussion about mental health — especially in the childhood and adolescent space — to the forefront.

The more Ryan Day came to understand about his father’s life, death and depression, the more it shaped his view on mental health.

“Over the years, what happened was that there was resentment early on,” Day told Yahoo Sports. “Then there was anger. There were these different emotions as we went on. And as I got older, I realized that it’s a sickness.”

Day adds: “You start to see that this is something that's not unique to you, it's gone on everywhere. It's gone on all over the country, and now we're starting to see it happen more and more at the younger age in adolescents and teenagers.”

That’s what Ryan Day and Nina Day want to change.

Ryan Day's father, Ray, died by suicide when Ryan Day was just 9 years old. (Courtesy: Day family)
Ryan Day's father, Ray, died by suicide when Ryan Day was just 9 years old. (Courtesy: Day family)

‘It needs attention. It needs help.’

Ryan Day was visiting a high school coach in Massillon, Ohio, on a weekday last spring when he asked why school was shut down. The coach told Day there’d been another suicide at the high school, part of a tragic wave in Stark County recently.

A few days later, while driving to work, Day heard an advertisement on the radio for On Our Sleeves, a movement from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus that focuses on transforming the conversation about childhood mental health. Around the same time, Shelley Meyer, the wife of former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, texted Nina Day about the On Our Sleeves movement, which has a motto of “Because We Don’t Wear Our Thoughts On Our Sleeves.” The movement’s goals include destigmatizing talking about the emotional and psychological well-being in American youth.

As Day, 40, approached his first season as Ohio State’s full-time head coach, he and Nina had been approached about numerous charitable partnerships. But the confluence of coincidences tied to On Our Sleeves, combined with Ryan’s own life experience, led to a meeting with officials at Nationwide Children’s Hospital about bringing increased attention, resources and research to the movement.

“Suicide is the second leading killer of adolescents and teenagers,” Ryan Day said. “It needs attention. It needs help. The more we talked about it with people, we realized what an epidemic it is in Ohio and everywhere else around the country. The idea was to shine some light on this.”

On June 5, Ryan Day stepped to a podium at a news conference and did something both brave and vulnerable.

Day said publicly for the first time that his father died of suicide.

The moment came as part of the announcement of the Day family’s partnership with the On Our Sleeves movement. The Day family pledged $100,000 to start the Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness.

The moment transcended the nearly $23,000 from 17 different states that’s been donated to the fund the past three months. The basic act of the Ohio State head coach talking openly about being impacted by suicide and the importance of openly discussing mental health reverberated through the community and beyond.

A few days after the announcement, a woman recognized Nina Day while she was running errands. She explained the story of her teenage son’s suicide more than a year ago, and said her family was still having a difficult time speaking about it.

“A lot of people have said to me because your husband, who is the Ohio State head coach, stood up at the podium and said, ‘My dad committed suicide,’ it gave them an OK to say, this happened to my husband or my son,” Nina Day said. “He’s opened up a lot of conversations for a lot of people.”

And the hope for Ryan and Nina Day is that in Ohio and beyond, someone sees the Ohio State coach talking about depression, anxiety or any type of mental health struggles and seeks help.

Ohio State University football coach Ryan Day is seen during an NCAA college football practice in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Ohio State University football coach Ryan Day is seen during an NCAA college football practice in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

How Day’s family had its own conversation

Before Ryan Day’s words echoed through the community in Columbus, he had to start a discussion in his own family. Talking about feelings and emotions isn’t natural for Day. “Irish family,” he says with a quick smile. Until June, when the Days announced the partnership with On Our Sleeves, Ryan hadn’t even spoken much privately about his father’s suicide. Nina Day said the topic rarely came up during their first 14 years of marriage.

A few days before the June announcement, Ryan Day sat down with 11-year-old RJ, the oldest of their three kids, to explain his grandfather’s death. Ryan and Nina didn’t want RJ to find out from the internet or a peer at school after the news conference.

“I wanted to make sure that he knew that’s what happened,” Ryan Day said. “He got upset. I think that immediately for someone that age, you get concerned about having that conversation. But in reality, I think the minute he heard, that it was almost a fear of him losing his father. We talked through it, and he did great with it.”

Ryan Day stressed to his son that he’s free to ask questions and keep an open line of communication. And that’s the overarching hope for the Day family in the Columbus community and beyond, that they’ll open doors to difficult conversations about depression, anxiety and mental health.

“It’s time to start talking about this stuff as openly as we do about physical health,” Nina Day said. “A lot of these kids are suffering because they’re not getting treated and not getting the help that they need. You see a lot of kids with anxiety. Whether it’s the first day of school or tryouts, there’s so much coming at these young kids.”

Before he spoke about Ray Day’s suicide in public, Ryan Day also had to speak to other members of his immediate family. Ryan Day has long credited his grandparents, mother, uncles, coaches and Nina’s family for helping raise he and his brothers after his father’s suicide. (He and Nina have known each other long enough they were on the same tee ball team at age 6.)

The conversations with his family, mostly based back home in New Hampshire, evolved from some initial hesitancy to an understanding appreciation. Day’s uncle, Jon McGaunn, said that the family’s embrace of Ryan’s cause was seen in the wake of the death of Ryan’s grandfather, Paul McGaunn, in June.

One of the charities that friends and family could donate to in lieu of flowers was the Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness. “I think he’s already made a difference,” McGaunn said in a phone interview. “What’s already happened in a short period of time is phenomenal.”

In a way, the Day family’s interactions took on the conversational arc of the type of discussions they’re trying to prompt in the community — perhaps awkward or difficult at first, but ultimately important and necessary. In trying to help break stigmas about discussing mental health, the Days had to start at home with their own family. “It’s almost like he has a weight that’s lifted off his shoulders,” Nina Day said of Ryan. “It’s nice that we can talk about it now, and we’re comfortable talking about it.”

Ohio State NCAA college football head coach Ryan Day talks to his team in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Ohio State NCAA college football head coach Ryan Day talks to his team in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

‘You want to make change’

Jon McGaunn worked for Ray Day at his 7-Eleven in Merrimack, New Hampshire, as a teenager. He says both father and son exuded similar competitiveness. Ray Day would canvass the competition to see what products they were selling and how they displayed items. He recalls him moving the candy to the front of the store after seeing the same tactic used by a competitor.

Ray Day always made sure to pre-order his oldest son, Ryan, the entire Topps baseball card set for Christmas every year. Ray Day loved following the New England sports teams of that era – Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots – and McGaunn recalls fondly how Ray Day took him to purchase his first baseball glove.

“When anyone has a situation like this,” McGaunn said. “You never really know what happens. He was very well liked in the community. I don’t think anyone tried to peel the onion back much to try and analyze it.”

One of the issues with depression and other mental health challenges is that there’s not always obvious physical manifestations of the issues. Ryan Day hopes that he and his family discussing their own personal story encourages people in Ohio and beyond to open up about their mental health challenges.

“I just wish at that time he felt like there was someone he could talk to to work through those issues, because obviously when you do something like that, it’s because you’re depressed,” Ryan Day said. “It’s like any other sickness. You need treatment. Because of the times, I think there was a stigma attached to asking for help.”

That stigma has already been lifted on the Ohio State football team. In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton earlier this summer, Buckeyes senior Robert “BB” Landers revealed his own struggles with mental health, which he called “an uphill battle on a day-to-day basis.”

This year, Ohio State has gone from three part-time staff members dedicated to mental health to four full-time in the athletic department, more than doubling the available help. That includes a clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist and two mental health counselors, all of whom have experience in the athletic space. In his nearly eight months as full-time coach, Day has attempted to foster an environment where his players feel comfortable talking about mental health. He saw Landers’ video, which was viewed by nearly 135,000 people, as a sign of that.

“The thing that's amazing is, [Landers has] got a team and a family that want to support him, and so the more we can do in terms of having guys step up and talk about their struggles, the better it's gonna be.” Day said.

As the Day family’s initiative grows, so will the support available in Columbus. On Our Sleeves is in its nascent stages, as it launched nationally in May and locally in October of 2018. Nationwide Children’s Hospital is opening the largest behavioral health treatment and research center dedicated to children and adolescents on a pediatric medical campus in the country.

The Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion, which will be dedicated to childhood and adolescent mental health, will open in March of 2020. It will stand directly next to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital dedicated to physical health. That image doubles as an ideal to the Day family and hospital officials.

They are hoping that down the road, mental health will be viewed through the same prism as physical health.

“It’s a beautiful picture to paint here in Columbus, they’re both just as important,” said Nichole Ferris, vice president of development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, who has worked closely with the Days. “One isn’t more important than the other. Having Ryan come out and tell his personal story gives so much more authenticity and heart to all of this.”

Ryan Day knows that ultimately at Ohio State he’s going to be judged by how many football games he wins. But by stepping out of his comfort zone and inspiring conversation about mental health in his community and beyond, he’s aiming higher.

“I hope we win a lot of games, that's part of the job at Ohio State,” Day said. “But you want to have a bigger impact than that when you're done. You want to leave a legacy behind, you want to make change.”

Click here to learn more about the On Our Sleeves Movement or to donate to the Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent and Mental Wellness.

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