Former UVA Athletes Reveal Mental Health Battles in Student-Produced Documentary

May 25, 2022
Isaiah Wilkins smiling on a basketball court, Greer Gill holding a field hockey stick, and Danny Hultzen pitching a baseball

Isaiah Wilkins, Greer Gill and Danny Hultzen all starred at UVA. Now they’re mental health advocates. (UVA Athletics photos)

Dylan Castagne and Lauryn Nilson didn’t need reinforcement.

After spending months researching and traveling, interviewing, shooting and producing a documentary on athletes and their mental health battles, the University of Virginia students were well aware of the gravity of the subject.

But then, as they applied final edits to their project, Castagne and Nilson saw news on April 28 that hammered home their work. At James Madison University, just over 50 miles away, the death of softball player Lauren Bernett was ruled a suicide.

“It was obviously so sad and just devastating,” Castagne said. “It made us realize how important it was to tell this story.”

“The Hidden Battle” is a 28-minute film on mental health and sports, as told by athletes such as former UVA basketball player Isaiah Wilkins, baseball player Danny Hultzen and field hockey player Greer Gill. This trio – plus former professional football player Darrell Campbell and Paralympian Jenny Sichel – revealed to Castagne and Nilson the athletes’ unique bouts with anxiety and depression, and the challenging roads to recovery.

Castagne, a fourth-year media studies student, and Nilson, a graduate student pursuing her master’s in education, partnered to create this documentary through WUVA News, the University’s student-operated media outlet.

It begins with spliced scenes from various news broadcasts reporting on mental health stories involving high-profile athletes like decorated gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from several events at the Tokyo Olympics, and tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open. The reel also includes a clip from early March, when Stanford University women’s soccer player Katie Meyer – a team captain and member of the Cardinal’s 2019 national championship team – committed suicide.

Castagne and Nilson each had personal reasons for pursuing this timely project. Nilson was taken aback a few years ago when she watched HBO’s “Weight of Gold” and learned of the struggles that faced legendary swimmer Michael Phelps, her childhood hero. And as a high school senior, Castagne battled depression.

Dylan Castagne, left, and Lauryn Nilson, right
Dylan Castagne and Lauryn Nilson each had personal reasons for pursuing a documentary on mental health. (Contributed photos)

“I didn’t tell family,” Castagne said. “I didn’t tell friends until much later. And seeing how hard it was to go through that by yourself, I learned how important it is to seek that help and fight that stigma, which is one of the main points of the documentary.”

Castagne and Nilson were grateful for the vulnerability each of their interview subjects showed in their film.

While Nilson had read Wilkins’ story in an  ESPN article, she found new layers to one of the core pieces of Coach Tony Bennett’s basketball program from 2014-18.

Wilkins in the documentary recalls the beginning of his dark moments. He was by himself during a summer on Grounds.

Isaiah Wilkins talks with another coach at a basketball game
His basketball playing career over, Isaiah Wilkins is now a graduate assistant coach for Tony Bennett’s program. (UVA Athletics photo)

“I stayed in my room for three days straight,” Wilkins said. “I called my mom, I was close to crying, I couldn’t talk, and I hung up. She called someone in the [men’s basketball] office and they got [UVA sports psychologist Jason Freeman] to call me, and I think that’s when it started.”

It was an “intense moment” in the interview, Nilson said, but an important one.

“Student-athletes want to tell their stories and they want someone to listen to them,” she said. “And I think even if that’s on a personal level from a friend or a coach or a teammate or a professor, or telling 1,000 strangers on the internet with a video, people want to tell their stories, and I think the more dimensions we add to student-athletes, the more colors we can fill into their lives, it can only help.”

Wilkins eventually sought help for his struggles, ramping up therapy sessions as a fourth-year student. He told Castagne and Nilson he feels like he’s “living a whole new life now.”

Nilson said she wanted to sidestep clichés in telling the stories, but one turned out to be unavoidable.

“It sounds corny – ‘Oh, break the stigma by talking about it’ – but I think people will watch and think, ‘Oh, wow, I know someone who’s said one of those things to me,’ or ‘I know somebody who might be exhibiting a sign,’ or ‘They lived through this and know they’re on the other side.’”

Gill, the field hockey player, said her toughest moments aligned with the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. No longer surrounded by her teammates and without access to even a public field for parts of 2020, Gill said she felt like she lost her identity. She tried to satisfy her competitive itch by overworking herself. She worked out too hard and ate too little, developing habits that spiraled into an eating disorder.

Gill, like Wilkins, is in a much better place now after committing to therapy. She speaks more freely about her issues and has founded the UVA chapter of Morgan’s Message, a nonprofit mental health resource for student-athletes honoring the memory of former Duke women’s lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers, who committed suicide in July 2019.

Greer Gill holding a field hockey stick during a game
Greer Gill was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament performer in 2019 for the field hockey Cavaliers. (UVA Athletics photo)

“What sticks about Greer’s story is you can be perfectly fine and then stuff can just come out of nowhere,” Castagne said of Gill, who was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament performer in 2019. “She was seemingly fine, she’s at the top of her game, killing it in the ACC, and then COVID hits and she can’t even play anymore because she’s hurting her body, physically, so much.

“I think that exemplifies the point that it can be anyone,” Castagne continued. “Anyone can struggle with this, and it can come at any point. For those three [UVA] athletes, that’s what sticks out – how you can be at the top of your game and it can all come crashing down.”

Hultzen, among the best pitchers in UVA history, was at his peak in 2011 after being selected second overall in the Major League Baseball draft by the Seattle Mariners. A couple major shoulder surgeries, however, derailed his professional career. He made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2019, but retired before the 2021 season with only six big-league appearances on his record.

Castagne and Nilson spent a weekend with Hultzen in Chicago, learning that the former collegiate All-American fought hard with the lofty expectations of being a touted prospect from the moment he left Grounds.

“Because I was drafted higher than I thought, I was tremendously insecure about myself,” Hultzen said in the documentary. “I tried to prove myself and be something more than I was. All of that started to crash down pretty quickly, because it manifested itself in my arm.”

Danny Hultzen throwing a pitch during a baseball game
Danny Hultzen, who played for the Cavaliers from 2009 to 2011, remains UVA’s all-time leader in strikeouts. (UVA Athletics photo)

While Hultzen said he never received any formal therapy, he credits a year away from playing as the crucial period in his life that changed his mindset for the better. It happened in 2017, when he came back to UVA as a volunteer assistant coach for the baseball team and spent long hours with team trainer Brian McGuire.

This part of Hultzen’s story isn’t in the film, but Castagne said, through their interviews with Hultzen and McGuire, it was clear that “Brian was responsible for reframing how Danny thought about things and what’s important in life outside of baseball.”

Hultzen now works in the Cubs’ organization as a pitching strategist.

“I can’t thank Danny enough for the bravery and the courage to share a side to his story that not many people know about,” Castagne said. “And to do it on such a public platform was fantastic.”

That’s the essence of “The Hidden Battle,” providing platforms for athletes to continue a relevant and deeply important conversation.

“I think the biggest takeaway is to keep asking student-athletes how they’re doing,” Nilson said. “And once you ask them, be prepared to listen and be prepared to actually do something about it.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications