On April 25, it was 20-year-old James Madison softball player Lauren Bernett. On April 13, it was University of Wisconsin track and field athlete Sarah Schulze, 21. On March 1, it was Stanford football captain Katie Meyer, 22. Last week, 19-year-old Southern University cheerleader Arlana Miller left an alarming note on her Instagram account and later died by suicide.
“I think the back-to-back losses have been really traumatic,” said Dr. Julie Amato, a clinical and sports psychologist who has worked at various NCAA schools and professional sports teams. “Not just for people who go to [those schools]but for the sporting community as a whole.
The finality of death by suicide shakes this community to its core. By one of our usual measures of athletic achievement, these were athletes at the top of their game who seemed destined for continued greatness. Bernett had just earned a Conference Player of the Week nod and an all-time JMU race leader at the College World Series a season ago. Schulze earned All-Big Ten academic honors in cross country and track. Meyer had secured Stanford’s 2019 national championship with two penalty shootout saves.
For some, perhaps these elite accomplishments make their suicides more puzzling; for others, it may make them more understandable. However, what they all do is underscore the growing concern that this is a model, and how a nation “in the midst of endemic pediatric mental illness,” as the Massachusetts General Hospital’s head of adolescent psychology, Dr. Tim Wilens, is working to address the issue within the sports community. The need is impossible to ignore.
“My heart goes out to the families of everyone affected,” Amato said. “It doesn’t get any easier with a young person who commits suicide. We have a hard time understanding when it’s an elite athlete who seems to have it all together. But we don’t know what’s going on internally.
A paper published by the American College of Sports Medicine concluded that athletes “are not somehow immune or more resilient to depression” and that they face unique risk factors including “injury, ‘involuntary career termination, performance expectations and possibly overtraining which can increase risk’. depression compared to the general population.
Studies from the federal Department of Health and Human Services show a high risk of depression in young adults, and a National Library of Medicine article showed that female college athletes reported more depressive symptoms than male college athletes. colleges. Bend NCAA surveys that report an increase in mental health issues among athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, including “mental exhaustion, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of depression,” and the crisis is undeniable.
“This age group, you’re kind of at an intersection,” Wilens said. “Children don’t see their options and children will kill themselves very quickly if they don’t see options. I am stuck. There is no way out. It’s the option. They also don’t really appreciate the permanence of it.
“Children are very impulsive and tend to be at higher risk for suicide.”
As Amato pointed out, however, “athletes are sometimes seen as different, stronger, more powerful, more capable, they don’t complain, they don’t complain, they push, they’re tough. In sports culture, one of the problems with revealing your vulnerability is seen as a weakness.
Revealing this vulnerability can be even more difficult for athletes who prefer the world to believe they have it all figured out. Meaghan Birnie is co-founder of Morgan’s Message (morgansmessage.com), a foundation in memory of her childhood friend and former lacrosse teammate Morgan Rodgers. Rodgers, 22, was recovering from an injury as a lacrosse player for Duke when she took her own life in July 2019.
“We always say the strongest people hide their pain with a smile, and Morgan always smiled,” said Birnie, now a Boston resident with a career in public relations. “It inspires us to encourage others to check out your strongest friends. Sometimes they need it the most.
That was probably the case with Sarah Devens, arguably the greatest female athlete in Dartmouth history. A pride of Essex, a graduate of Shore Country Day School in Beverly and St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Devens was a Division 1 star in three sports at Ivy League University. She was named all-conference field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse, All-American in field hockey and lacrosse, and on hockey and lacrosse teams that won Ivy League championships. She participated in the Olympic hockey camp and was selected to play field hockey at the American Olympic Festival. As a junior, she shared the Class of 1976 award for Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year and was set for a historic senior season.
Before arriving there, on July 10, 1995, the 22-year-old committed suicide, leaving a family and a university community in shock.
“The number of people who are amazing in their jobs and their families and in their life circles for being positive and upbeat and inspiring and amazing and they seem by all accounts that they have the world by their tails, the number of those people who choose death by choice, it’s just amazing,” said Julie Dayton, Devens’ field hockey coach in Dartmouth and now athletic director at a private all-girls school in Virginia.
“Sarah Devens was an amazing, amazing kid. She was a three-sport athlete who was going to be captain for three seasons in her senior year. She was friends with so many people. I think as a coach you you have few kids like that who are just great to be around, who make you want to train every day. Even now when I talk to her mom, I tell her every time I carry Sarah with me every day. days.
“You don’t forget that.”
To date, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East jointly award the Sarah Devens Award to a player “who demonstrates leadership and commitment on and off the ice,” an honor that includes a $10,000 graduate scholarship. It is funded by his parents, Charles Devens Jr. and Sally Willard, representing one way to keep his memory alive.
The fact that we are here, 27 years later, facing the same problem underlines how it was not a singular problem. The difference, however, can be seen in how much it is talked about now. Foundations such as Morgan’s Message, or the Madison Holleran Foundation in memory of the former University of Pennsylvania long-distance runner who killed herself in 2014, and many others are working to fill the greedy void. information, assistance, life-saving effort to de-stigmatize large-scale mental health issues and suicide in particular.
“I always tell people that I think we’ve come so far since Madison died, but we still have a long way to go,” said Carli Bushoven, Madison’s sister and executive director of the foundation. “Conversation is the first step, and there are certainly other steps. Mental health care, therapy, counseling, especially at the college level, is more accessible. But the first step is to de-stigmatize. I remember that when Madison was going to therapy at home, she made it very clear to us as a family not to tell anyone. There was still such a stigma back then. They feel they can’t not reach out.
Resources have multiplied — efforts such as the Mental Health Ambassadors that Morgan’s Message sponsors and trains — but nothing can prepare us for these tragic past weeks.
“It’s awful every time you hear about it, and lately it feels like there’s another one every week,” Bushoven said. “It brings up those feelings of Madison again and when we lost her. It’s really hard.”
As Birnie agreed, “It’s heartbreaking to see these headlines keep popping up…waking up to the news of Lauren Bernett at JMU, I just started crying. For the crew who were very close to Morgan and our organization, we are heartbroken.
There is no doubt about the value of sport, individually and collectively. The camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the lessons of working together, and the challenge of reaching and breaking boundaries. No one who loves sports wants to see that diminish. But it’s equally important to understand that mental health is health, that athletes need to be at their best mentally and physically to perform at their best, that it’s brave to recognize the need for help. After the past few weeks of such tragic news, this is the only way to move this conversation forward.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or struggling with mental health issues, help is available. Here are some resources:
Crisis text line — Free 24/7 assistance for anyone in crisis. Text “Brave” to 741-741.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Free assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone in a suicidal crisis. Dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Project Trevor — Free, confidential, 24/7. Crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. 1-866-488-7386. SMS and chat options on thetrevorproject.org.
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline — Free, confidential. 1-800-931-2237. Chat option available on nedawareness.org.
National Sexual Assault Hotline — Free, confidential, 24/7. 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Chat option available on rainn.org.
Disaster Hotline — Free 24/7 crisis counseling and support for anyone experiencing emotional distress related to natural or man-made disasters. Dial 1-800-985-5990. Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.