Mental health and a sudden surge in suicides among NCAA athletes

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Mental health matters: it is a message that is spreading rapidly after the sudden death of Lauren Burnett amid rising suicides among female athletes.

Burnett, a great softball player at James Madison University and a graduate of South Fayette High School, died last month from apparent suicide.

Her death came just one day after she was named Colonial Sports Association Player of the Week. She also played an important role as a freshman on the Dukes ’2021 team, who made incredible appearances in the World Series of Colleges.

This week the school announced that the team canceled the rest of the season.

Fraser C / OF Jensen Hartman watches the game against Charleroi on April 28, 2022, displaying the message “Mental Health Matters” on her visor after the death of Lauren Burnett.

Mike Darney / Mon Valley Independent

Her sudden death, just as shocking to the James Madison and Western Pennsylvania softball communities, is sadly not outstanding among women’s university sports.

A few weeks before that, Sarah Schulz, star of the track at the University of Wisconsin-Madisonkilled herself.

“The balance of athletics, science and the demands of everyday life overwhelmed her in one desperate moment,” said the Schulze family. said after her death.

In March Katie Meyer, captain of the Stanford football teamdied a suicide.

“I think there is a lot of pressure on athletes, especially at a high level that balances scientists and high competitive conditions,” said Gina Meyer, Katie’s mother. in an interview with NBC News. “And there’s anxiety and stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be number one.”

As the recent surge in suicides among college athletes has come to the fore, other student-athletes have begun to talk about the need to focus on mental health.

Kalein Bracken, a lacrosse player from Vanderbilt who recently retired from sports to focus on her mental health, addressed these issues. in an open letter to the College of Sports.

“We have to put the person in front student and athleteotherwise we risk losing all three, ”Brecken wrote.

“I needed to understand who I was without lacrosse, and develop a sense of self – a sense of self worth “Out of the sport, so I was no longer dependent on my coaches, my parents or the statisticians who told me I was important,” Bracken added.

Resting from lacrosse and spending time away from sports, Brecken is back in competition and uses her story and focuses on how it can help others.

Here in the Pittsburgh area, Logan Hartman, a pitcher from Seton Hill University and a Fraser High School graduate, recently spent a year in medicine in a red T-shirt this season to step away from softball and focus on his mental health.

Logan Hartman plays for Seton Hill against Edinburgh during the 2021 game.

Mike Darney / Mon Valley Independent

She recently spoke publicly about her struggle, writing on Instagram that she is afraid of what people will say, and decided to fight the problems alone before deciding to share her story.

Hartman said softball has always been her happiest place, but found that this “escape” in her life is now causing her the worst pain.

“Leaving the game hurts a lot, but I’m more than an athlete,” Hartman said. “For a long time I kept it to myself and fought my own battles, but finally realized I wasn’t alone.”

She said she hopes the time away from the game to focus on her mental health will allow her to return ready for competition next year.

“It was a walk through hell, but it’s time to heal to be able to finish my last few years as an athlete,” Hartman said.

All of this begs the question: what else can be done to help student-athletes who are facing difficult levels of performance in their sport along with the fact that they are students, have work priorities and all the other things that come with young people?

Phil Larsinez, a softball coach on trips here in Western Pennsylvania, said he sees all sides of these conversations both as a coach and as the father of a child who is an NCAA student athlete. His daughter, Kaylee, was an outstanding student at Elizabeth Forward High School, who is now studying at Towson University in Maryland.

Kaylee Larsinez of Elizabeth Forward returns to the dugout after recording her 15th knockout in a 7-0 win against Belle Vernon-Rio on May 10, 2021 at William Penn Field in Forward Township.

Mike Darney / Mon Valley Independent

“Unfortunately, even with the best sports conditions and resources, most coaches will never learn about the demons their athletes are fighting mentally until it’s too late,” Larsinese said.

“Good coaching is building relationships,” he added. “I’ve found that athletes need to feel good to perform at the highest level. Too many coaches forget how it was as a child or young adult. Our athletes need to know that they are loved and that you invest in their success. , coach, could create a demanding and safe competitive environment where your athletes can “buy” and perform without fear of failure and consequences. “

Does the transition from competition at the high school level lead to an additional level of pressure at the college level? Larsinez said he did not think so.

“There will always be pressure on athletes, whether at the high school or college level,” he said. “Athletics in general is how to deal with pressure and adversity in your sport to succeed. Athletics teaches an athlete how to succeed in life and manage their pressure.

“I believe that a big shift in pressure is happening through social media. Our young people are exposed to the Internet and social media at a much younger age during periods of vulnerable mental and physical development with topics such as gender, pandemic, politics, sexuality, social status and suicide. “Our children face information overload and pressure to obey or fit in.”

When it comes to whether adequate resources are available for college-level athletic students in mental health, Larsinese said he would like to think so.

“Most college programs have mental health professionals for each relevant sport,” he said. “Obviously, bigger, more profitable schools will have more staff and services.”

Kristen McKell, director of mental health and clinical services at the University of Pittsburgh’s sports department, said it was in Auckland, where the department employs two full-time clinicians as well as a psychiatrist.

McKell said many resources are available to student-athletes, whether in the form of on-site counseling, admission to remote care or in various other formats.

But just because these resources may be available does not necessarily mean that student-athletes will take advantage of them or feel they can use them without compromising their chances on the playing field.

Although some barriers to resources have been removed, such as telehealth, which eliminates the need for face-to-face meetings, the stigma surrounding mental health remains the biggest barrier to support for all those who can seek help.

Mackel said there was still a perception among sports that there was a need for “mental resilience,” and said that in itself could be a major hurdle when it comes to providing for those in need.

“We don’t need mentally ill people, we need mentally resilient people,” Makel said.

When it comes to raising awareness and further helping to address mental health stigma, Mackel said growing open discussion of professional athletes, sharing people’s own stories on social media and general coverage of these topics in the mainstream media can help cover mental health.

For example, five-time NBA All-Star Game participant Kevin Love has made significant efforts to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health by sharing his personal issues with depression, anxiety and other issues.

McKel said the professional athletes, who shared their stories and spoke publicly, helped young athletes feel more comfortable when it comes to seeking help and sharing their struggles.

Larsinez said it still comes down to coaches being willing to listen to athletes when they talk, not just focus on the game.

“Unfortunately, I believe that most athletes will find it difficult to speak freely and whether to tell the truth about their mental struggle without fear of repercussions with the team,” Larsinese said. “That’s why it’s so important for coaches to create an environment where the athlete knows it’s not just another number on the schedule card.”

Although many factors can play a role and every situation is different, being able to tell the truth about mental health and being able to do so without fear of repercussions can be a first step towards erasing the stigma surrounding mental health and strengthening key messages about mental health. health matters.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides round-the-clock free and confidential support for people in need, resources for prevention and crisis for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in United States. Call 1-800-273-8255 or click here for more information.


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