College athletes put mental health first

Cailin Bracken came to Vanderbilt to play lacrosse already well aware of the importance of athlete mental health. She knew of at least two female college athletes, including one near where she grew up, who had committed suicide.

Bracken has been overwhelmed with college life, especially when she had to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19 after just a few days on campus. She decided to leave the team.

“I was so self-aware. I trusted my intuition so much in a way, and it sounds cliché, but the idea that I’m following, I have to go home even though it doesn’t seem like the right decision to make in terms of my career path or my reputation or whatever,” she said. “…I felt like, when I got to the university, that my nervous system was deregulated. I couldn’t process anything. I constantly felt overwhelmed. I never felt safe.

Then came the first death of at least five college athletes – Stanford soccer goalie Katie Meyer – all of whom took their own lives this spring. This has raised concerns that colleges are not doing enough for some of their most prominent students.

Bracken wrote an open letter to college sports, calling on coaches and administrators to become more aware of the challenges athletes face in navigating not just their competitive side, but also their social and academic responsibilities.

It is not clear whether American college athletes are committing suicide 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 their athletes — to varying degrees — and that’s partly because athletes are standing up for themselves and their teammates.

“Mental health support should be treated the same as academic support and injury and injury prevention,” said Nova Southeastern athletic director Michael Mominey.

For many schools, the attention started before the pandemic. This includes James Madison, where sophomore softball player Lauren Bernett took her own life on April 25.

“What we’ve seen is over the last decade…(is a) significant increase in mental health issues, a lot more students coming to college with mental health issues,” Tim said. Miller, vice president of student affairs at James Madison, who canceled the remainder of the softball season after Bernett’s death. “And what we’ve really seen in the last two and a half, three years of the pandemic is an exponential increase. So if you imagine it in graph form, it’s been going up very quickly.”

James Madison wide receiver Lauren Bernett throws during an NCAA college softball game on May 28, 2021 in Columbia, Missouri. Five varsity athletes, including Meyer, took their own lives in the spring, raising concerns that schools weren’t doing enough for some of their more high-profile students.

Colin E. Braley/AP

Suicides in the United States among 15-24 year olds rose from 4,600 in 2010 to 6,062 in 2020, according to federal data. An analysis published in the journal Sports Health in 2015 found that 35 NCAA athletes committed suicide over a nine-year period (2003-04 to 2011-12), and several other similar deaths of college athletes were reported in the following years.

This year, Meyer, whose two shootout saves helped the Cardinal win the 2019 national championship, took her own life on March 1. A month later it was Robert Martin, a graduate student goaltender for the Binghamton lacrosse team. A day later, Northern Michigan track athlete Jayden Hill died. Sarah Shulze, a junior who raced cross country and track in Wisconsin, died April 13. Then there was Bernett, followed by Southern University freshman cheerleader Ariana Miller on May 4.

Only half of the 9,808 NCAA athletes who responded to a survey at the end of 2021 said they thought mental health was a priority for their athletics department. The survey, which included athletes from all three divisions, showed that 63% believed their teammates took mental health issues seriously and 56% knew how to help a teammate struggling with a mental health issue.

Athletes believe their coaches take mental health issues less seriously, with 53% believing this is the case.

Division II Nova Southeastern has a program within its athletics department that incorporates mental health alongside other important parts of an athlete’s life. Mominey, who has been at the school for two decades and also coached baseball there, pointed to 2016 as a turning point.

He said there were cases of athletes trying to harm themselves and “acting in a way that they were looking for help” – things that required more than just “skills training.” mental”. As part of rolling out the varsity, injury and mental health program, Mominey and his leadership team held candid talks with coaches, gaining both immediate buy-in and immediate feedback.

“We think we are with them all the time, more than 20 hours a week. We are still in contact. We’re hiring,” Mominey said. “But you really don’t know them until you know them. You don’t know what’s going on with mom or dad.

Nova Southeastern didn’t increase its budget when it made mental health a priority, he said, and doesn’t think the NCAA is doing enough to help member schools with mental health programs, suggesting that even subsidies would help.

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

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

“I had barely been to work, and the student-athletes were clearly not just worried, but were talking seriously, saying they considered this as important as anything else,” he said. . “I think in that regard they were in some ways ahead of the others because that certainly wasn’t always the feeling in sports medicine.”

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

“For every campus (to follow the recommendations exactly), we would be ahead of the game,” Hainline said. “But it’s hard at times, and I think mental health is not in the same vocabulary as ankle sprains and knee/ACL injuries and things like that.”

Erik Price, the Pac-12 associate commissioner for compliance and governance, worked with athletes, the conference mental health task force and Hainline on a 2019 proposal to codify mental health as part of NCAA medical expense regulations. While mental health services already fall under medical expenses, Price said he believes the “declarative statement” de-stigmatizes the mental health of athletes and “large intercollegiate athletic departments.”

In early May, the AP asked the 10 public universities in the Pac-12 Conference for detailed budgets for mental health resources or athletic department mental health programs. Utah and Oregon both said they had no such budgets; private schools in Southern California and Stanford declined to provide the information to the AP.

In Colorado, the office of psychological health and performance within the athletic department increased its budget by about $128,000 between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and about $16,000 more. for the school year that has just ended. A UC spokesperson said the extra money was for the costs of a new 24/7 crisis hotline and software in 2019, as well as the hiring new employees.

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

Price said the current generation of students deserves a lot of credit for putting mental health first.

“I believe this is an ongoing generational shift in college athletics, which like any generational shift has caused angst for the older generation,” he said. , later adding that Gen Z “are not shy about talking to each other about their emotions.” – and they wonder how and when their coaches and the adults in the room will join them, and 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 “very big mistake” if athletic departments don’t think about the pressures athletes face.

“Unfortunately we’ve had so many athletes who have committed suicide over the past few years…if that’s not your wake up call then you’re really in the wrong profession because unfortunately we can’t just care about the win and forget 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.