Suicide among college athletes is contagious, and there must be an immediate call to action.
If there has ever been a time to call for a state of emergency in college athletics, it is now. When I share articles about a star collegiate athlete dying by suicide, with a caption, “…and another,” there must be immediate and aggressive action.
In March, Stanford University soccer goalkeeper Katie Meyer, who helped win the 2019 NCAA women’s soccer championship for her school, took her own life. This past weekend, the suicide of University of Wisconsin track star Sarah Shulze was announced. Yesterday, Lauren Bernett, a key member of James Madison University’s 2021 Women’s College World Series team as a freshman catcher last year, died at age 20.
Though these athletes all attended different universities and competed in various sports,
there are underlying similarities and themes. Meyer, Shulze, and Bernett all had sparkling athletic careers, were talented and ambitious, had everything to live for, and were all described as having vibrant, magnetic, and exuberant personalities. But, the most heartbreaking commonality among these athletes is the utter shock they left their friends and family, showing “no signs” or “red flags” leading up to the act of fatally harming themselves.
As elite athletes, we are bred to show toughness, grit, and perseverance—physically and emotionally. The cliché phrases like “walk it off” or “rub some dirt on it” are engrained in our minds constantly reminding us to conceal any pain or injuries. We are pressured to never show weakness forcing many of us to suffer in silence. And, despite advances in wider societal conversation around mental health, the stigma is still unwavering throughout college sports.
These deaths in repeated fashion are no coincidence. As an incoming freshman who played soccer for Michigan State University, I was naive and unaware of how the overwhelming pressures we faced could lead to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. It was not long into my freshman season that I started noticing alarming behaviors of my teammates. I recall vividly watching one drink Red Bulls before each game. I saw others running long distances on our days off. And, dieting became a locker room fad while fitness was a never ending feat.
As a collegiate student-athlete, I was committed and willing to do whatever it took to perform to my utmost potential. I sure as hell wasn’t going to let others get a competitive edge on me by doing extra—whether it was running, training, dieting, or even downing energy drinks. So, I began exploring ways that would help me compete at the highest level possible. My plan was simple: train twice a day everyday, and watch my calorie and food intake.
While others may not have taken their unhealthy behaviors to the extreme, I inadvertently did. Training became excessive and my diet became more limiting and restrictive. With a perfectionist personality type, who struggled with body image issues and anxiety, it is not surprising that I developed an eating disorder. My coaches recognized signs and symptoms, and there was immediate professional intervention. There is no way I would’ve been to able to fight and recover from such a severe mental health condition without the support, guidance, and help that Michigan State provided.
In college sports we tend to set unrealistic goals and expectations, have an intense desire to achieve greatness, and feel crippling pressure to be a role model with a superhero-like mentality. As a result, many athletes find themselves trapped in what seems like a never ending cycle with no way out.
Eating disorders are mental health disorders that are contagious because they carry a strong influence among groups. The development of my eating disorder epitomizes this logic.
Likewise, suicide is contagious, and the phenomenon of social proof is incredibly powerful. Every time a suicide is widely publicized, a whole raft of copycat suicides follow. The media must put an end to bringing national attention to these suicides. When athletes start to equate suicide with a way to escape a problem, it can seem like an increasingly viable option. It makes suicide applicable to athletes who are also experiencing similar problems—especially when those who seem to “have it all” die by suicide. Others might think that if their struggles led to this, then maybe this is a way of expressing the distress that adults aren’t seeing, hearing, or picking up on.
Student-athletes face a profound number of pressures on a daily basis making them subject to more triggers than the average person. The fear and stigma surrounding mental health is prevailing. The statistics are startling: of college athletes with mental health conditions only 10% seek help. There is a lack of communication causing the stigma around mental health and athletes to continue. For that reason, athletic departments must provide and mandate counseling. It’s essential to open the door for athletes to address their mental health issues.
And finally, it’s going to take a movement of more athletes like Harry Miller, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps to come forward, normalize, and share their mental health struggles. Currently, there is no comprehensive framework or model of care to support and respond to the mental health needs of elite athletes.
Time is of the essence. Students, athletes, coaches and staff must look to cultivating spaces free of judgment with a willingness to learn and listen. It can feel like you are alone, but the best way to break out is to seek help. If a teammate or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, reach out.
Take my word for it. I wish I had never suffered from anorexia nervosa. I wish that it wasn’t the reason my perspective on life changed. But it was. And I am forever grateful for what it taught me about helping and loving and caring about those around me. It is now my own mission to be a person who helps others and changes lives.
I had no idea that my passion for the game and my drive for perfection could cause such turmoil. Always remember to be vigilant, to be proactive, and most of all, to be compassionate. As you can see from my story, attention to mental health can make a difference in the lives of others!
In addition to these most recent, nationally-publicized deaths, Brian Lilly Jr., 19, a rower at UCSD, died by suicide on January 4, 2021. Ian Miskelley was a standout athlete, living his dream swimming at the University of Michigan. Ian, was 19 years old when he took his life in September 2020. Former Duke women’s lacrosse player, Morgan Rodgers, took her life at the age of 22 in July 2019. And, in 2014, when I first began my journey of sharing my story, Madison Holleran, a collegiate runner at University of Pennsylvania took her life during her freshman year.