Why Ohio State Football Coach Ryan Day and His Wife, Nina, Champion Mental Health
The couple discuss their work to raise awareness of the hidden health crisis—not just with Buckeye football players, but in the Central Ohio community at large. For the coach, the issue is personal.
It’s common to describe Ryan Day as a “champion.”
After all, the Ohio State head football coach has racked up an impressive record since assuming his current role in 2019: two Big Ten championships, two College Football Playoff appearances, coaching 12 first-team All-Americans and four Heisman Trophy finalists. But even with those accomplishments, perhaps Day’s most important achievement has nothing to do with rankings and Saturday afternoon games. Instead, it’s about a hidden, off-the-field health crisis and what he’s done to raise awareness of it—first with the young men he coaches, and now with the wider Central Ohio community (and beyond).
In August, Day and his wife, Christina “Nina” Day, announced a $1 million donation to the OSU Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine through their newly established Nina and Ryan Day Resilience Fund. The fund, which focuses on young adults, will be used to fight the stigma of mental health challenges, create more and easier-to-access resources for treatment of mental health issues and initiate research into resilience, an individual’s ability to bounce back in the face of adversity, stress and trauma.
The Days’ advocacy for mental health and well-being isn’t just a pet cause; it’s a deeply held conviction borne by personal trauma and firsthand experience. Day was 8 years old when his father died by suicide at a time when discussing mental health was taboo and shameful. He has said that it took a great deal of time to accept and understand that mental illness caused his father’s death.
But, Day cautions, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to begin the conversation about mental health. “Everybody can partake in breaking the stigma attached [to] mental health and also trying to make sure you are mentally healthy,” he says during a recent interview in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Sitting next to him on this day is Nina, who has dealt with anxiety most of her life. She says high anxiety forced her to withdraw from activities she enjoyed, such as playing basketball, during her last two years of college. “I remember just feeling that I was suffering alone,” she recalls. “You just couldn’t talk about it back then.”
Their donation will help ensure a new generation of young adults won’t feel that loneliness and isolation. “We believe that as young adults migrate away from home into school, or a job, they face a period of transition that is often positive and exciting, but can also be challenging and stressful,” says Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State. “Knowing that, the more we can equip young adults with the skill sets to develop and cultivate resilience in the face of adversity—we believe that is the core strategy to build prevention, as well as early intervention efforts.”
Phan says there will be multiple components created through the Nina and Ryan Day Resilience Fund, which will begin on the OSU campus and radiate outward. The first will be a set of initiatives that help fight the stigma of mental health challenges, with the goal of encouraging struggling people to reach out for help. There will also be an awareness campaign that empowers students to use established resources on campus and to build resilience and develop strong coping skills. This will likely originate with students in the College of Medicine as a component of their campus orientation. The initiative will also offer peer counseling and tech-based chat lines through apps or texting.
Finally, Phan and his team will study the biological, psychological and social factors that relate to resilience and risk. This research effort, he expects, may track and follow a cohort of students, documenting their mental and behavioral health outcomes and following their trajectory over time.
Phan’s hope is that once the study is validated at the College of Medicine, it will migrate to the wider OSU campus and then on to other campuses across the state and country—“so that we here become the leaders of student mental health and young adult mental health more broadly,” he says. In the future, Phan and his team hope to develop and widely disseminate young adult programming.
➽ Given his line of work, it’s not surprising that Day is focusing on the mental health of young adults. In many ways, his philanthropy is an extension of the practical changes he’s made in the football program, which has prioritized mental health since he was named head football coach three years ago. “I thought it would be a great platform for our players and Ohio State football to be a part of what Columbus and Ohio is trying to do in terms of getting out in front of mental health,” Day says.
At the same time Day was taking over head coach duties, OSU was launching its sports psychology and wellness services program. “It coincided extremely well with coach Day’s emphasis on mental health,” explains Jamey Houle, lead sports psychologist with Ohio State Athletics.
He recalls in the early days of the program, the warm reception his team received when they visited the football complex. “Coach Day just walked right up to us, introduced himself and said that he was so grateful that we were there. He was like, ‘C’mon … sit down with our guys, get to know ’em. We want you around more. Come out to practice. We want you on the sidelines. We really want you around,’” he says. “There was zero hesitation. There was zero ego. He just walked right up, introduced himself, and we felt right at home.”
This openness, Houle says, trickled down to other coaches and teams on campus. “Other teams started going, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Football has somebody on their team they can go to. Who’s our sports psychology and wellness person?’” Houle says.
Day has initiated a system that tracks the weekly performance levels of his players, including mental health. During their Thursday staff meeting, those responsible for player areas (including academics, training room, weight room, nutrition and player development) give a trend on how each of the 120 players is doing—arrow up, arrow slightly up, flatline, arrow slightly down or arrow way down. “If you see a few arrows down, you may want to bring them in and start talking to them to find out what’s going on,” Day explains.
When they do have one of those conversations with a player, Day says the response is positive. “They’re pretty honest. I think they feel safe having a conversation. And sometimes it’s nothing that needs more attention. Other times it is,” he says. And when it does require additional help, staffers help the player find it.
On Aug. 28, 2021, Ohio State offensive lineman Harry Miller walked into Day’s office and told him he was contemplating suicide. “I think he was very patient. And I think he’s gained a lot of patience and a lot of insight and a lot of compassion towards the subject, given his life experiences with [suicide],” Miller explains. Day urged him to take some time off and connected him with a sports psychologist, who helped get him additional assistance. Miller credits that conversation with saving his life.
That’s a complete 180 from the self-described person who “was averse to seeing sports psych initially,” even though it was promoted during team meetings and encouraged by the staff. Miller recalls once even quipping to a teammate, “I’m not going to talk to somebody who’s paid to care about me. If I want to kill myself, they’re not going to stop me.”
College athletics, he says, can be terribly polarizing, alienating and isolating. “One week you can be ostracized and the next week you can be called godlike,” he explains.
Day, who began recruiting Miller to play at Ohio State in 2017, agrees. “This is a big stage, and there’s a lot of eyeballs on it.”
Not only eyes, but social media platforms, where people are free to say whatever they want, with no accountability. “When you’re on the stage and you’re put up on this pedestal, naturally there are a lot of people who want to take you down. And we can identify it, we can address it, but when you read it, it does hurt,” Day says.
Miller, who medically retired from college football in March 2022 and expects to graduate next December, says it’s hard to adequately convey the number of college athletes fighting mental health issues. “College football amplifies emotions. It amplifies the stardom. It amplifies people hating you, as well,” he says. “It’s a difficult thing to grasp, and it’s extremely stressful most of the time.”
Houle says unequivocally that Miller is not the only player on the football team who has received help through Day’s emphasis on mental health. He is just the only one who has gained national attention for it. (Miller revealed his mental health struggles in a powerful social media statement in March 2022, which attracted national media coverage.) “We’ve engaged in mental health screening and that has, without getting into too many specifics, done what it is designed to do,” he says. “And I feel really proud of that, because that’s worked. I’m proud that it’s been successful.”
➽ The Ohio State donation isn’t the first time the Days have stepped up to support mental health. In 2019, the couple donated $100,000 and created the Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness at Nationwide Children’s Hospital to support the national On Our Sleeves program.
They’ve raised another $400,000 on top of their initial donation, largely due to Nina Day’s fundraising efforts, says Dr. Ariana Hoet, clinical director of On Our Sleeves. The program launched in 2018 as an awareness campaign, then grew during COVID to provide free resources to support the mental health of children. Among the offerings are curriculums, including “Emotional Empowerment” and “Day Time Breaks,” for use by teachers.
The Days’ fund helped underwrite the Day Time Breaks curriculum, which focuses on destigmatizing and defining mental health, comparing the similarities of mental health to physical health and outlining daily habits that maintain positive mental health, Hoet says. “These are important tools that teachers can use without putting them in a place where they have to be mental health professionals,” she adds.
On Our Sleeves has national reach thanks to partnerships like those with media and technology company Go Noodle, which is in four out of five classrooms in the United States. The program focuses on children ages 14 and under, who were previously left out of the conversation about mental health even though “50 percent of lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14,” Hoet says. “If we start talking to young children, destigmatizing, giving them the language, then hopefully we can prevent some of the people that would have ended up needing mental health services in the future.”
She says anxiety is the most common condition seen in young children, but they can also experience depression and can be adversely impacted by trauma or a developmental or learning disability.
Nina Day saw the result of their On Our Sleeves contributions during open houses at their children’s schools in August. “One of the things that kind of warmed my heart was … on their desks, right beside their school supplies, was the On Our Sleeves kits that we provide,” she says. “It’s nice to see that school districts in Ohio are starting to prioritize mental health education.”
While the Days’ financial contributions are significant, perhaps even more powerful is their public advocacy. “Someone like coach Day saying ‘this matters’ is incredibly impactful,” Hoet says.
Phan agrees, calling Nina and Ryan Day “our new champions of resilience.” Says Phan: “Anytime somebody of public stature speaks to a topic that is important, it begins to kindle the community to do the same. … So I think that someone like a leading, prominent football coach saying something like this and putting his talents, his resources and his time to these efforts is important.”
Houle says the Days’ public support goes very far in fighting the stigma associated with mental illness. “And that’s going to save a lot of lives. I think their courage and their leadership in this space is tremendous.”
It’s a message that Nina Day says she hears a lot. “When we’re out in public, people will just grab [Ryan] and say, ‘Thank you for speaking about something that not a lot of people are willing to speak about,’” she says. “I think it’s opened up a lot of doors for families to have conversations, and I just think people are appreciative that we’re willing to talk about it and be vulnerable about it. It’s given them an easier way to have conversations with either their parents or with their coaches or with their children.”
Miller says the Days have helped Ohio State and the wider Central Ohio community make a step in the right direction through their philanthropy and the awareness they’ve raised. “I think it’s beautiful, and I’m grateful that the Days are doing that. I just imagine a long time from now it’s going to be a huge cornerstone for a lot of progress.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health crisis, you can reach Ohio’s 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741, call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445, or call the new national mental health crisis hotline by dialing 988. “”
This story is from “Giving: A Guide To Philanthropy” in the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.