College athletes push mental health to the fore

Kaelen Bracken arrives in Vanderbilt to play lacrosse already aware of the importance of mental health for athletes. She knew at least two college athletes, one of whom was from a place she had grown up, who had committed suicide.

Bracken was immersed in college life, especially when she had to isolate when she tested positive for COVID-19 after only a few days on campus. I decided to leave the team.

“I was very self-aware. I was too trusting my intuition somehow, and it sounds cliched, but the idea I like, I need to go home even if I don’t feel the right decision to make in terms of my career path or my reputation or something else.” “…When I got into college, I felt like my nervous system was being set free. I couldn’t process anything. I always felt overwhelmed. I never felt safe.”

Then came the first deaths of at least five college athletes – the Stanford football goalkeeper Katie Meyer They all committed suicide this spring. This raised concerns that the colleges were not doing enough for some of their notable students.

volcano books Open letter to the College of SportsAppeal to coaches and administrators to become more aware of the challenges athletes face in navigating not only the competitive aspect, but also their social and academic responsibilities.

It is not clear whether US college athletes are taking their lives at a higher rate than others in their age group; The NCAA declined to share with the Associated Press whether it tracks athlete suicides. But universities are starting to pay more attention to the mental health of athletes – to varying degrees – in part because athletes are standing up for themselves and their teammates.

“Mental health support should be treated just like academic support and injury and injury prevention,” said Michael Momini, athletic director at Nova Southeastern.

For many schools, the focus started before the pandemic. This includes James Madison, as sophomore softball player Lauren Burnett committed suicide on April 25.

“What we’ve seen over the past decade …[is]a significant increase in mental health concerns, and more students coming to college because of mental health concerns,” said Tim Miller, vice president of student affairs at James Madison University. Canceled the rest of the softball season After Burnett’s death. “And what we’ve really seen in the last two and a half, or three years of the pandemic is an exponential increase. So if you visualize that as a graph, it has gone up really fast.”

Softball catcher in purple getting ready to throw the ball

Lauren Burnett, James Madison’s staff writer, throws a ball during an NCAA college softball game on May 28, 2021, in Columbia, MO. Five college athletes, including Mayer, committed suicide in the spring, raising fears that schools were not doing enough for some of the high profile students.

Colin Braley/AFP

Suicides in the United States between ages 15-24 rose from 4,600 in 2010 to 6,062 in 2020, according to federal data. Analysis published in Sports Health Magazine 2015 It found that 35 NCAA athletes committed suicide over a nine-year period (2003-04 to 2011-12), and there were many other similar deaths of collegiate athletes reported in the following years.

This year, Meyer, who twice saved the Cardinal’s penalty shootout to win the 2019 National Championships, took her life on March 1. Robert Martin, a graduate student goalkeeper at Binghamton Lacrosse. A day later, Northern Michigan sports track Jayden Hill Die. Sarah Schulz, a junior who was a cross-country running and track apprentice in Wisconsin, died on April 13. Then came Burnett, followed by a new Southern League cheerleader Ariana Miller On May 4th.

Only half of the 9,808 NCAA athletes who participated Survey in late 2021 They said they believe mental health is a priority for the athletics department. The The survey, which included athletes in all three divisions63% showed that they believed their teammates took mental health concerns seriously, and 56% knew how to help a teammate with a mental health issue.

Athletes have less confidence that their coaches take mental health concerns seriously, with 53% believing this to be the case.

Nova Southeastern Division II has a program within the athletics division that integrates mental health along with other important parts of an athlete’s life. Momeni, who has been at the school for two decades and coached baseball there, pointed to 2016 as a turning point.

He said there have been cases of athletes trying to harm themselves and “behaving in a way that they were looking for help” – things that needed more than just “mental skills training”. As part of the launch of the Academic, Injury, and Mental Health program, Mominey and his leadership team had frank conversations with coaches, gaining immediate approval and immediate opposition.

“We think we’re with them all the time, more than 20 hours a week. We’re always in touch. We’re recruiting,” Momini said, “but you really don’t know them until you know them. You don’t know what’s going on with mom or dad.”

He said Nova Southeastern did not increase its budget when it made mental health a priority, and he doesn’t think the NCAA is doing enough to help member schools with mental health programs, suggesting that grants would be beneficial.

“We find ways to get it done,” he said of the DII schools. “It’s a priority, we’re going to make it work, whether it’s funding or not…and I hope I think the NCAA makes it a priority.”

Brian Heinlein has been the NCAA’s chief medical officer since 2013. He said the athletes immediately told him that mental health was their top priority.

“I was hardly at work, and obviously the student-athletes were not only interested, but were talking seriously, saying they saw this as important as anything else,” he said. “I think in that respect, they were in some ways ahead of others because that certainly wasn’t always the sentiment in sports medicine.”

Hainline oversees the NCAA’s Institute of Sports Science, which offers resources such as mental health best practices, workshop templates, and planning tools. He said SSI is also talking to people in the athletic departments who ensure that recommendations are followed and that everyone knows who the mental health providers are and what the protocols are for accessing mental health.

“For each campus (following recommendations exactly), we will be ahead of the game,” said Hainline. “But it’s challenging at times, and I think mental health is not in the same vocabulary as sprained ankles and knee/anterior cruciate ligament injuries and things like that.”

Eric Price, Pac-12 Associate Commissioner for Compliance and Governance, worked with athletes, the Conference Mental Health Task Force and Hainline on a 2019 proposal to legalize mental health as part of NCAA medical expense regulations. While mental health services do fall under medical expenses, Price said he believes the “illustrative statement” removes the stigma from the mental health of athletes and the “large intercollegiate sports divisions.”

In early May, the Associated Press asked the 10th Pac-12 Conference of Public Universities for detailed budgets for mental health resources or mental health programs for sports departments. Both Utah and Oregon said they had no such budgets; Private schools in Southern California and Stanford declined to provide the information to the Associated Press.

In Colorado, the Department of Sports’ Office of Mental Health and Performance increased its budget by about $128,000 between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school year, and about an additional $16,000 for the school year that just ended. A CU spokesperson said the additional money went to the costs of a new 24/7 crisis hotline and software in 2019, as well as the hiring of new employees.

The other seven Pac 12 public universities have not provided budget information as of June 2.

Price said the current generation of college students deserves a lot of credit for bringing mental health to the fore.

“I think it’s a generational shift happening in college athletics, which, like any generational shift, has caused the older generation to worry,” he said, adding later that Generation Z “isn’t shy about talking to each other about their feelings – and they wonder how and when they’ll join in.” The coaches and the adults in the room join them, and they join them more.”

Bracken’s coach, Beth Hewitt, supported her decision to leave the team and assured her that she would still have a place if she returned. Hewitt thinks it’s a “really big mistake” if sports departments don’t consider the pressures athletes are dealing with.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of athletes who have killed themselves in the past few years…if that’s not a wake-up call, you’re really in the wrong career because unfortunately, we can’t worry about you winning and forgetting about the person,” she said.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline At 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis text line By texting HOME to 741741.