Cornell’s Morgan Richardson makes mental health awareness her mission

By Matthew Semisch

The senior defenseman, one of five finalists for the 2016 Hockey Humanitarian Award, helped to found Do It For Daron after her sister's suicide.

An organization that has raised over $4 million to promote and destigmatize mental health awareness began while bound to small roots.

To be more specific, it all started with a set of hockey helmet decals.

Do It For Daron, an organization co-founded by Cornell hockey player Morgan Richardson and her parents, Luke and Stephanie, was launched in 2010 with help from Richardson’s friends. The idea for the helmet decals came about after Richardson’s sister Daron took her own life that year at the age of 14.

“After Daron passed away, a couple of her friends got together and made helmet stickers for their team that weekend,” Morgan Richardson said, “and other people wanted the sticker, and there was a snowball effect.

“Someone made a hat, then someone else wanted the hat, and then all of a sudden this whole organization started. Someone wanted to start a Purple Day for mental health [awareness] and put DIFD on a helmet sticker, and then another school wanted to do it, and it became this organization and foundation.”

The organization has grown exponentially ever since and has shined a light on a subject that well-meaning people may be uncomfortable in discussing.

Richardson is one of five finalists for the 2016 Hockey Humanitarian Award.

Mental health is something that’s stigmatized and not talked about that much. It’s a very taboo subject at all ages, but I think this is something that was started as a youth-driven movement and that’s where implementing health programs in schools came into it. It wasn’t necessarily something that was targeted at youth, but it’s something that’s benefited all age groups.

Morgan Richardson – Cornell

DIFD has received backing from doctors at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre in Richardson’s hometown of Ottawa. Richardson credited the support from the facility in the Canadian capital for boosting DIFD’s development and reach.

“It’s a lot of mixed feelings on how to approach this subject that’s never really been talked about,” Richardson said when asked about the organization’s early existence, “and having the doctors at the Royal Ottawa there saying this was the right way to do things was important.

“There needs to be a focus on mental health and it needs to be talked about and the barriers need to come down, and having the doctors backing the movement made it more successful. It helped people become more open to the movement because they saw it coming from medical professionals saying this was the right thing to do.”

DIFD has gone from strength to strength, reaching more and more people while remembering its roots.

In February, Cornell put on a Do It For Daron series of games at Lynah Rink, the Big Red’s home arena. Fourth-ranked Quinnipiac and No. 9 Princeton, both ECAC Hockey rivals of Cornell, took part in the event.

Cornell raised money from the event by auctioning off its jerseys that were worn during the Big Red’s 4-1 loss on Feb. 5 against Quinnipiac. The white jerseys featured purple lettering and numbering as well as purple DIFD hearts on the shoulders.

Below the numbers on the back of the jerseys read the hashtag #WeAllSkateTogether. When the auction closed on Feb. 16, each jersey had brought in a winning bid of at least $100.

The No. 21 jersey from Richardson, a senior defenseman for the Big Red, brought in $600.

Proceeds from the Cornell jersey auction will be donated to mental health initiatives on the Ithaca, N.Y., campus.

DIFD events aren’t unique to Cornell. Other ECAC Hockey schools have also gotten on board in order to assist similar initiatives on their own campuses.

“When we had our DIFD mental health games here on campus, the money stayed on campus and went to mental health services on campus,” Richardson said. “For Quinnipiac or Union or Princeton or any of the other teams that have done DIFD games, all the money for those stays on campus.”

Former Cornell teammates of Richardson’s who now play professional women’s hockey have since carried the DIFD movement into their new teams in cities such as Boston and Calgary.

Richardson, a Biology and Society major at Cornell, plans to become a Grade 11 biology teacher in the next school year through Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that recruits graduates from some of the top U.S. universities.

“I’ve always believed in educational equity,” Richardson said, “and I wouldn’t be where I am today without my teachers.

“Just having the opportunity to be directly involved in youth’s lives is something that is really important to me and something I’ve always been very passionate about, and getting this opportunity is something I’m excited for.”

As for DIFD, Richardson plans to maintain the role she’s kept with the organization during her time at Cornell.

“The organization is still this growing movement, so it would be great to see it continue to grow,” she said. “The whole point is to create conversations and take steps to promote mental health.

“The money raised has been the byproduct of that, but the goal wasn’t the money. The goal was to grow the conversation, and where the organization grows to would be amazing, and I think it will only benefit more people.”