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Senator vows to support mental health counseling for student athletes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An Albuquerque state senator and former University of New Mexico football player said this week he plans to try again during the upcoming 30-day legislative session to appropriate state dollars to pay for mental health counseling for student athletes.

Nahje Flowers

The UNM football team recently lost 21-year-old defensive lineman Nahje Flowers, whose death on Nov. 5 was later determined by the Albuquerque Police Department to be due to suicide.

Sen. Mark Moores, a Republican, had included $357,000 for nutrition and behavioral health services for UNM student athletes in an appropriations bill passed during this year’s session, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to delete the funding from the legislation.

Her spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the funding was vetoed not due to a political kerfuffle over UNM’s decision to eliminate four sports teams, as Moores suggested, but instead due to concerns over what the nutrition services would entail and the behavioral health services being targeted to a specific group.

“This issue is so much larger than any one particular group,” Stelnicki told the Journal. “I don’t think anyone would question (the governor’s) commitment to addressing behavioral health.”

He also said Lujan Grisham would be open to an additional funding request for behavioral health services for student athletes, and he said he hoped Moores would support the governor’s broader push for expanded mental health services.

Sen. Mark Moores

Moores, who was an offensive tackle for UNM, said he still recalls the pain caused by the deaths of two former teammates – one during a season and one shortly thereafter – and said student athletes would benefit from greater proximity to mental health services, even if they don’t think they need them.

“Once you embed those professionals … inside of the team network, it’s seen as part of the overall, holistic training of the mind and body,” Moores said.

UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez has pushed for more financial support for mental health in athletics and approached Moores with the request for state dollars to address the issue, the senator said.

Nuñez did not immediately respond to a Journal question about how the $357,000 would have been used, but Moores suggested it could have allowed for an on-site mental health therapist at UNM athletics facilities.

“Responding to the personal challenges of student-athletes on and off the fields and arenas of play requires us all to become more aware, more prepared, and more supportive,” Nuñez said in a statement after Flowers’ death. “We must find the ways and means to do so.”

However, the funding in question would have only gone toward behavioral health services at UNM – not the state’s other universities with collegiate athletic programs – and Moores acknowledged other institutions likely need more behavioral health services, too.

Several other college football players have also committed suicide in recent years, including former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who was later found to have early stages of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Teton Saltes, an offensive lineman for the Lobos, has also expressed interest in working to improve mental health services at UNM. Saltes has been involved with suicide prevention and awareness on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and other tribal areas.

The 30-day legislative session starts Jan. 21.

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