A few weeks after becoming Stanford University’s soccer goalie Katie Mayer22, died by suicide last March, his grieving teammates were inseparable even if they did not train.
Coaches adjust practices to give players time and space to process the loss of their friends and team captains. They offered to cancel the spring season, but the players refused, said Melissa Charlo, who started as Stanford’s assistant women’s soccer coach the day Meyer died.
“It’s hard because there’s no playbook on how to do it,” Sharlow said.
No playbook exists because, until recently, student-athletes dying by suicide were relatively uncommon. But at least five NCAA athletes, including Meyer, ended their lives within two months last year. And a 2021 NCAA poll released in May found that student-athletes say they are experiencing more mental health concerns, anxiety and depression than they reported in surveys conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. And despite an overall increase in mental health concerns there, universities have been alerted when student-athletes have died by suicide. Traditionally, sports psychologists have focused on mental health as it relates to on-field performance. Their goal was to help athletes improve physically — jump higher, run faster — not navigate mental health crises, largely due to a misconception that college athletes are less susceptible to mental health concerns.
What little research exists on student athletes and mental health is inconsistent and inconclusive. But many experts think that athletes are immune to risk factors such as depression and social isolation, because physical activity is good for mental health and because athletes have a constant circle of people around them, including coaches, trainers and teammates, said Kim Gorman, a Western Carolina University counselor and Director of Psychological Services.
“They’re kind of used to pain — it’s not that foreign to them,” adds organizational psychologist Matt Mishkind, of the University of Colorado’s Helen and Arthur E. Anschutz Medical Campus. Johnson is the Deputy Director of the Depression Center.
Still, athletes face pressures that their peers in the general student population don’t, such as balancing sports, schoolwork, the fear of career-ending injuries and mistakes that could lead to ridicule that spreads on social media. With suicide rates rising in the general population and the effects of the epidemic continuing to threaten well-being, high-profile suicides highlight how to deal with the unthinkable — and how to try to prevent it from happening again.
In the wake of such suicides, schools are reevaluating the mental health support they provide. Creating a safe space to talk about grief with someone who understands suicide is an important step, says psychologist Doreen Marshall, vice president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“A lot of professionals are good with grief, but suicidal grief can be a little different,” she said, because it often involves guilt and questions about why someone would end their life.
Gina Meyer, Katie’s mother, and her husband, Steve, created Katie’s Save, an initiative to ensure all students have a trusted advocate in times of danger. “We know that the bravest thing you can do is ask for help,” she said.
The Meyers filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Stanford in November, alleging that their daughter ended her life after receiving an email from the university about taking disciplinary action against her. Stanford University spokeswoman Dee Mostofi did not respond to questions about the case, but Stanford posted a statement on its website saying the Meyers case contained misleading information and that the school disagreed with their allegations that it was responsible for Katie’s death.
“Like other colleges and universities across the country, Stanford has seen a sharp increase in demand for mental health counseling and other wellness resources over the past two years,” Mostafi said. “Mental health is not only an ongoing challenge, but our most urgent priority.”
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After Meyer died, Stanford provided her teammates with mental health counselors and a sports psychologist, but the players said they lobbied the university to pay for Zoom sessions with female athlete Kimberly O’Brien, a specialist in the sports medicine department. program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
O’Brien has professional and personal experience related to sports and suicide: he was an ice hockey player at Harvard in 1998 when an athlete from his university house died. “I wasn’t even very close to him, but it affected me deeply,” he said. “There were no resources to deal with it.”
That is changing. Colleges are trying to hire more mental health therapists to meet the growing and diverse demand. Some, including Stanford and Washington State University, are working with the Jade Foundation, which provides suicide prevention programming for high school and college students. And crisis support doesn’t just happen at student health centers: Colleges are establishing campus-wide “postvention” programs for suicide prevention.
Before the cross country runner Sarah Schulze, died by suicide on April 21, 2022 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the athletics department is expanding its professional mental health support staff from two to six to help the school’s nearly 800 student-athletes, said David Lacoque, the department’s director of mental health and sports psychology. The department, known until eight months ago as “Clinical and Sport Psychology,” changed its name because student-athletes were asking for mental health help.
In addition to scheduled appointments, sports communicators attend practices, team meetings, training sessions and competitions to help normalize mental health concerns.
“Gone are the days when we sit in our office and wait for people to knock on the door and talk to us,” Lacoque said.
Student-athletes may also seek free help from university mental health professionals or community providers under contract with the University of Wisconsin Athletics Department. And some female cross-country athletes at the school now keep tabs on their teammates when coaches aren’t around, letting team communications know if they’re concerned about someone’s mental health.
“We don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks,” teammate Maddie Mooney said. “It’s a difficult time for everyone, and everyone grieves at different speeds and processes things differently.”
Teammate Victoria Heiligenthal, who shared a house with Schulz, said she avoided talking to campus counselors for months after her close friend died. “I just wanted to be alone or be with my friends who really understood the situation,” she said.
Heiligenthal couldn’t bear to stay in the house where he and Schulze lived, so the university put him and Mooney up in a hotel for a week, and then he stayed briefly in Mooney’s apartment. Once back at his own facility, teammates, coaches, training staff and psychologists checked in with him and Mooney.
But the real game changer for the two was last spring with Stanford soccer players Sierra Ainge and Naomi Girma (who now plays professionally). Ange reached out after seeing something Mooney had posted on Instagram. Since then, the four have met via Zoom. They also spoke with O’Brien and will join him on a mental health panel at a conference in Boston in June to talk about the experience of losing a teammate to suicide.
“It was powerful to hear the parallels,” Heiligenthal said. “It made you realize that Maddie and I weren’t alone; there were others who were feeling the same thing as us.”
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford, athletes honored their late teammates by raising mental health awareness last fall. At a big meet in October, Wisconsin runners painted green ribbons on the course, put ribbons on race packets and contributed a video. At Stanford’s game against UCLA in November, spectators wore green ribbons to highlight the importance of addressing mental health issues.
Stanford won the game, handing UCLA its first loss of the season. The victory was bittersweet. A year ago, Meyer led the team’s first mental health awareness game.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing “988” or the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.