Mental Health

Mental Health Is a Concern for Student Athletes After Recent Suicide Deaths

In her sophomore year of college, Liz Gregorski, 20, was depressed. She was failing her classes, ignoring her friends, and only getting out of bed to go to volleyball practice. She blamed herself for the academic hole she had fallen into and wasn’t sure how to find her way out. As an elite athlete, she had internalized the message that there were no excuses for falling short of excellence. One day, Gregorski showed up to volleyball practice early, as she often did because it was the only thing she looked forward to. Her coach sat down with her and told her he had noticed her slipping grades and robotic affect. Gregorski remembers him saying, “That’s not you – that’s not the Liz Gregorski I know.” 

She started crying because it was the first time she realized her depressed self wasn’t her actual self – and that maybe, things could get better.

Mental health among student athletes has been thrust into the spotlight after at least five high-profile athletes died by suicide in recent months: Katie Meyer, a star goalie on Stanford’s soccer team; Sarah Shulze, a decorated runner for the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Lauren Bernett, the softball player who helped lead James Madison University to the Women’s College World Series; Robert Martin a lacrosse player at Binghamton University; and Arlana Miller, a cheerleader at Southern University. Others have also been reported, but not confirmed. The deaths of these young people seemingly at the top of their game have shaken their college campuses, their loved ones, and college athletes across the country who find themselves looking back at their own mental health struggles and wondering: Could that have been me?

After her coach stepped in, Liz Gregorski was able to access psychological and academic help. Looking back, Gregorski, who is now a part of the team at UNCUT Madison, an organization dedicated to sharing the stories of student athletes, says she had been overwhelmed by the pressure of being a student athlete. 

“Everything is tied together – our academics and social lives and sports,” she says. “And sports culture has just trained us not to complain but to just work harder and do better.” 

As many student athletes attend school on scholarships that are reliant on academic success, they are not only pressured to be great at their sport, but to balance a full course load at the same time. “The pressure keeps building and building,” Gregorski says. “Everything felt so much harder – like I was wearing a weighted vest.”

Grace Chelemen, a 21-year-old softball player at Marshall University, understands that feeling intimately. In a tweet, she urged people to understand that student athletes are humans, who often put their family and social lives on the back burner to focus on their sport. The never ending schedule of a student athlete is punishing, Chelemen said. “I wake up, go to class, go to practice, go to weights, go to study hall, go home, eat, study, sleep, and wake up and do it all again,” she says. “You have no control. You don’t get sick days or personal days.”

Chelemen was especially affected by Lauren Bernett’s death – Chelemen had just followed Bernett’s team in their history-making NCAA tournament run and called Bernett a “stud” on the field. The week of her death, Bernett was named Player of the Week by the Colonial Athletic Association. While talking about Bernett, Chelemen’s voice grows ragged. “It’s so sad because you feel alone when you’re around the most people you’ve been around in your life,” she says.

Michael Hollander, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard, says the high expectation student athletes face combined with the anxiety of the present day can be crushing. “This has been such a strange time for late adolescents and young adults with the pandemic,” Hollander said. “We know that anxiety has really risen as a response and there’s an increase in suicidal behavior and self-harm.”

Though the rate of suicide among NCAA athletes is generally lower than that of the general population, student athletes have also experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety throughout the pandemic just like their peers. Among the student athlete population, mental health concerns were 150% to 250% higher in May of 2020 than historically reported, according to a report released by the NCAA. And even without the effect of a pandemic, the pressures student athletes face can be overwhelming – take it from Carli Bushoven.

Carli Bushoven’s sister, Maddy Holleran, a track star at the University of Pennsylvania, died by suicide in 2014. An hour before her death, Maddy posted a photo on Instagram of the view from the parking garage where she would die, showing cozy outdoor lights surrounding a park. The photo gave no indication that anything was wrong. Bushoven remembers their family trying to understand the difference between what Maddy posted on Instagram and what they knew her struggles to be. Once, Bushoven says, during Maddy’s lowest time, their mother told Maddy she looked so happy in an Instagram photo and Maddy responded, ‘Mom, it’s just a picture.’ “We need to remind ourselves of that,” Bushoven says. “It’s just a picture. It was 10 seconds of someone’s life. It’s not their whole story.”

Part of Maddy’s story, Bushoven says, is a thread common in that of high-achieving athletes: perfectionism. Maddy was kind, beautiful, funny, and always up for a dare, her sister says. But when she felt she fell short of her goals, her self-criticism could become ruthless. "The pressure is too much,” Bushoven says. “We have to teach [young people] to fail. Failure is inevitable… but so many people are afraid of failure. Maddy was a perfectionist so in her mind, failure wasn’t an option.”

Meaghan Birnie, who cofounded Morgan’s Message, an organization dedicated to student athlete mental health, after the death of her friend Morgan Rodgers, says she sees a similar thread in each of the stories of another college athlete lost too soon. “There’s something in each of these stories that’s the same and it’s that no one expected it,” Birnie said. “You’re taught from a young age that if you’re an athlete, you’re tough on and off the field. I think sometimes we’re brought up to think showing emotion equals weakness.”

Birnie, who says Morgan “played the music and brought everyone to the dance floor with her,” was gutted by the recent deaths of Lauren, Katie, and Sarah. “[At Morgan’s Message], we felt like we’d been failing. Like are we even making an impact? What more could we be doing?” The effect was compounded by the fact that both of Morgan’s parents attended James Madison University, where Lauren played. Days before Lauren’s death, Morgan’s Message had held an event at JMU though Birnie says the JMU softball players weren’t in attendance. Despite the recent devastating losses, Birnie tries to find sources of hope. “People are sharing their stories and that brings me hope,” she says. “We want to make a change. We don’t want anyone to feel the way we and Morgan’s family have felt.”

Kyrah Dailey, 19, knows how close her community came to mourning the way Morgan’s family does. Dailey attempted suicide in her sophomore year of high school and says when she saw news of the recent losses, she thought “that could’ve been me.” In an Instagram post, Dailey shared her own story of depression, saying the sharing is a way to find comfort. “I have no shame in my story, in what happened to me,” Dailey says. “With athletes, we’re told, if you’re not dying, you’re fine. But then one of us dies and it’s no longer fine. We’re pushing ourselves to the brink in our sports and ignoring our mental health because we’re scared to let our coaches or fans or teammates down.”

Sydney Nelson, a 21-year-old softball player at Minnesota State University, learned to honor her own limits after ending up in the emergency room from physical symptoms of depression and anxiety. Now, Nelson says, she listens to her body unapologetically which can be difficult when you have the mindset of an elite athlete. “We athletes want to be viewed only as strong and accomplished,” Nelson says. “There’s this ‘suck it up’ mentally. Like, if you’re not tough then maybe you don’t want it enough.”

In her own experience, Nelson found herself worrying that reaching out for mental health help would be a burden to people around her. But, she says, she learned to reach out and wants others to as well. “Nothing is going to be a burden except reading your obituary or carrying your casket. That’s when people will wish they could have helped.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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