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UNM football players lobby for mental health funding

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University of New Mexico quarterback Tevaka Tuioti, second from left, pauses Monday while discussing a bill that would appropriate money to UNM and New Mexico State University to pay for mental health counseling for student athletes. UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nunez, far left, and Lobo offensive lineman Teton Saltes, second from right, also testified during the Senate Education Committee hearing. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — For Teton Saltes, protecting teammates is part of the job description.

But the University of New Mexico offensive lineman carried that duty from the football field to the Roundhouse on Monday, as he spoke in favor of a bill that would increase mental health counseling services to student athletes at the state’s two NCAA Division I institutions.

Specifically, he cited the death of Lobo teammate Nahje Flowers, who died by suicide in November, as proof of the need for more counseling and behavioral health screening.

“The circumstances that led to his suicide are not unique to only him,” said Saltes, a Valley High School graduate and enrolled member of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

He also said other current Lobo teammates are dealing with mental health issues, saying, “If we don’t give them adequate support you’re going to continue to hear stories like this every year.”

The testimony by Saltes and teammate Tevaka Tuioti, a quarterback for the Lobos, appeared to carry weight with members of the Senate Education Committee.

The committee voted 7-0 to endorse a bill that would appropriate $500,000 to both UNM and New Mexico State University for behavioral health services.

The measure, Senate Bill 56 is sponsored by Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, a former UNM offensive lineman who said that state mental health funding for student athletes could eventually be expanded to the state’s other universities, too.

Both UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez and NMSU Athletics Director Mario Moccia also spoke Monday in support of the bill, testifying the money would be used to hire an in-house psychologist and bolster mental health education efforts for student athletes, coaches and staffers.

“They are ambassadors for our institutions — they’re ambassadors for our state,” Nuñez said of the university’s student athletes.

A proposed $357,000 appropriation for nutrition and behavioral health services for UNM student athletes was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during last year’s legislative session.

A Governor’s Office spokesman later said the veto was due to the behavioral health services being targeted to one specific group.

While Saltes and Tuioti acknowledged more mental health counseling would not necessarily safeguard against future tragedies, they said it could help student athletes — and teammates who want to help them.

“There’s so much pressure put on us and not many people see behind the scenes,” said Tuioti.

The bill now advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

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