Vikes women’s rower Jess Phillips opens up about her recent strides in supporting her mental health

VICTORIA – There’s a new pup on campus and he goes by the name of Bentley. The four-month old border collie has gathered a lot of attention around the University of Victoria campus, particularly around the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities and not just for his innocent looks. Vikes women’s rower Jess Phillips has introduced her in-training psychiatric service dog to her daily student-athlete life as she combats her struggles with mental illness.

On Jan. 31 the nation, and in particular U SPORTS student-athletes, will focus in on joining the conversation around mental health and illness in support of Bell Let’s Talk day. The initiative has made it safer and safer for people to engage in conversation about their mental health struggles and that is just the case for Phillips.

“I had seen an Edmonton article about a girl who got her own dog and she had anxiety and was training her dog to be a psychiatric service dog,” said Phillips, who took the fall of 2017 off from rowing due to her mental health struggles. “I knew that was what I needed and I took matters into my own hands and got Bentley.”

Phillips returned to campus in 2018 and with the help of Bentley has been able to return to her student-athlete life.

“It’s hard because people are wondering what is he training for and why do you have him,” said Phillips, who has plans to get Bentley certified after his basic obedience training. “Everyone stares at you but I find that I’m not paying attention to everyone. I’m paying attention to Bentley and I just tell them the truth. I would rather be open and honest with people about what he’s for and how he’s helping me.”

Phillips, who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, has had the full support of her team mates and the UVic campus. Phillips is keen to acknowledge that the struggles of balancing a student-athlete life can be exhausting.

“With rowing we train twice a day every day of the week and that’s a huge time commitment,” said the Social Sciences major. “You have to get all of your training done, your studies, sleep and if you have time hanging out with friends. If you’re on the national team training is your job but when you’re a student-athlete you really have two or three jobs at once and that can be a lot of pressure.”

Phillips is at UVic as a visiting student from the University of Alberta, studying Recreation sport and tourism. Last spring the Edmonton native competed for the Vikes varsity eight crew at both the Brown Cup and the San Diego Crew Classic. Entering in to her final years of eligibility, Phillips is hoping that her story will help open doors for other student-athletes who might be struggling.

“I had a really hard time getting to practice some days which, in rowing, when you don’t show up you mess up the entire boat,” Phillips described. “I would wake up some mornings, have a panic attack and wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. It was hard to deal with it and have people understand.”

“I had a spinal fusion surgery back in 2014 and I always compare how I was treated when I told people I couldn’t come to practice because my back hurt versus struggling today because of mental health. It’s really just that stigma and although we have come so far, there really is still a long way to go.”

Phillips hit her ultimate low in November 2017 but made the choice to take strides towards a new direction.

“Last year being in a boat caused me to have panic attacks and in the last month even I have a seen a shift in myself and the best part of my day is being out on the water,” said Phillips about her transformation. “With Bentley now, he doesn’t allow me to stay in bed. I have to get up and get going and that sometimes was my biggest struggle.”

The Vikes varsity teams have all committed to helping raise awareness for mental health, joining the conversation and supporting the Jan. 31 Bell Let’s Talk day initiatives. On Saturday, Jan. 27 the varsity teams will be at the Vikes basketball games (5 p.m. women, 7 p.m. men) with their Bell Let’s Talk blue toques helping to support awareness of the Jan. 31 campaign.

Phillips hopes that others struggling will find the same path that she did in their own way.

“You might think it’s the end but it’s never going to be the end,” she advises. “There’s always, always, always something positive that you can go towards in life. I was hospitalized last year and I thought that was it. I was 23 thinking it was over but now all these new doors are opening and it’s a completely new day. No matter how in the dark you are there’s always that little sliver of light.”

Phillips is also hoping to start a UVic hub of the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAHMI), a charity organization focused on raising awareness and improving the mental health of post-secondary student-athletes. SAMHI already has representative groups at the University of Toronto and Guelph. The student-lead groups help create mentally healthy environments for their peers, coaches and campus community.


Watch the CTV Vancouver Island news feature on Jess here.

Bell Let’s Talk day is on Jan. 31 and there are multiple ways to show your support on the day. Bell will donate 5 cents towards mental health initiative for every:

  • Text message sent by Bell Canada customers
  • Every mobile and long distance call made by Bell Canada customers
  • Every tweet with #BellLetsTalk
  • Every view of the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Instagram and facebook
  • Every snapchat sent using the Bell Let’s Talk filter