When headlines tell the story of a young athlete lost to suicide, there is no road map for grief. There is no right way to react. The range of emotions runs the gamut: shock, sadness, empathy, confusion, anger, all of it jumbled together in one big ball.
When those heartbreaking stories come in succession in the way they have in recent weeks, that mixture of tangled reactions is even harder to unravel. Fueled by the unknowable question of why, underscored by the unthinkable notion of how come, wracked with the hindsight of what could have been done, the recent incidences of suicide among college athletes have touched off a national conversation of concern.
On April 25, it was James Madison softball player Lauren Bernett, age 20. On April 13, it was University of Wisconsin track athlete Sarah Schulze, 21. On March 1, it was 22-year-old Stanford soccer captain Katie Meyer. Just this past week, Southern University cheerleader Arlana Miller, 19, left an alarming note on her Instagram account and later died by suicide.
“I think that the losses coming in close succession has really been traumatic,” said Dr. Julie Amato, a clinical and sports psychologist who has worked across a range of NCAA schools and professional sports teams. “Not just for the people who go to [those schools], but for the athletic community at large.”
The finality of death by suicide shakes that community to its core. By any of our usual measures of athletic success, these were athletes at the top of their games who seemed destined for continued greatness. Bernett was coming off a conference player of the week nod and a leader of JMU’s unprecedented run to the College World Series a season ago. Schulze earned academic All-Big Ten honors in cross-country and track. Meyer had secured Stanford’s 2019 national championship with two penalty shootout saves.
For some, maybe those elite accomplishments make their suicides more confusing; for others, perhaps it makes them more understandable. What they all do, however, is point to the increasing concern that this is a pattern, and how a nation “in the middle of a pediatric mental health endemic,” as Massachusetts General Hospital’s chief of adolescent psychology Dr. Tim Wilens put it, works to address the issue within the athletic community. The need is impossible to ignore.
“My heart goes out to the families of everyone affected,” Amato said. “It doesn’t get easier with a young person dying by suicide. We struggle to make sense of it 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 resistant to depression” and that they face unique risk factors including “injury, involuntary career termination, performance expectations, and possibly overtraining that may increase the risk of depression compared with the general population.”
Studies by the federal Department of Health and Human Services show a high risk for depression among young adults, and a paper by the National Library of Medicine showed women college athletes reporting more depressive symptoms than male college athletes. Fold in the NCAA surveys that report increased mental health concerns among athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, including “mental exhaustion, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of being depressed,” and the crisis is undeniable.
“That age group, you’re sort of at an intersection,” Wilens said. “Kids don’t see their options and kids will go to suicide very quickly if they don’t see options. I’m stuck. There’s no way out. That’s the option. They also don’t really appreciate the permanency of it.
“Kids 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 whine, they don’t complain, they push through, they’re tough. In sports culture one of the issues in revealing your vulnerability is seen as weakness.”
Revealing that vulnerability can be even more difficult for athletes who’d rather the world believe they have it all figured out. Meaghan Birnie is a co-founder of Morgan’s Message (morgansmessage.com), a foundation in memory of her childhood friend and onetime lacrosse teammate Morgan Rodgers. Rodgers, 22, was recovering from injury as a Duke lacrosse player when she died by suicide in July 2019.
“We always say the strongest people mask their pain with a smile, and Morgan was always smiling,” said Birnie, now a Boston resident with a career in public relations. “It prompts us to encourage others to check in on your strongest friends. They sometimes need it the most.”
That was most likely true of Sarah Devens, arguably the greatest female athlete in Dartmouth history. The pride of Essex, graduate of Shore Country Day School in Beverly and St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Devens was a three-sport Division 1 star at the Ivy League university. She was named all-conference in 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 competed in Olympic camp in hockey and had been selected to play field hockey at the US Olympic Festival. As a junior she shared the Class of 1976 Award for the outstanding female athlete of the year and was poised for an historic senior season.
Before she got there, on July 10, 1995, the 22-year-old took her own life, leaving a family and campus community in shock.
“The number of people who are extraordinary in their jobs and their families and in their live circles for being positive and upbeat and inspirational and amazing and they look by all accounts that they have the world by the tail, the number of those people who choose death by choice it’s just astounding,” said Julie Dayton, Devens’s field hockey coach at Dartmouth and now an athletic director at a private girls’ school in Virginia.
“Sarah Devens was an amazing, amazing kid. She was a three-sport athlete who was going to be a three-season captain in her senior year. She was friends to so many. I think as a coach you have few kids like that who are just super to be around, who make you look forward to practice every day. Even now, when I talk to her mom, I tell her every time that I carry Sarah with me every day.
“You just don’t forget it.”
To this day, ECAC Hockey and Hockey East jointly give the Sarah Devens Award to a player “who demonstrates leadership and commitment both on and off the ice,” an honor that includes a postgraduate scholarship of $10,000. It is funded by her parents, Charles Devens Jr. and Sally Willard, representing one way to keep her memory alive.
That we are here, 27 years later, facing the same issue emphasizes how it was not a singular problem. The difference, however, can be seen in how much more it is talked about now. Foundations such as Morgan’s Message, or the Madison Holleran Foundation in memory of the former University of Pennsylvania cross-country runner who took her own life in 2014, and many others are working to fill the void so eager for information, for assistance, for the vital effort to destigmatize the issues of mental health on a broad scale and specifically suicide.
“I always tell people I feel we’ve come so far since Madison died, but we still have so far to go,” said Carli Bushoven, Madison’s sister and executive director of the foundation. “Conversation is the first step, and there are more steps for sure. Mental health care, therapy, counseling, especially at the college level, being more accessible. But the first step is to destigmatize. I remember when Madison was going to therapy at home she made it clear to us as a family, do not tell anyone. There was still such a stigma on it then. They feel they can’t reach out.”
Resources have multiplied — efforts such as mental health ambassadors that Morgan’s Message sponsors and trains — yet there is nothing that can prepare us for these recent tragic weeks.
“It’s horrible every time you hear about one, and lately it feels like every week there’s another one,” Bushoven said. “It brings up those feelings again of Madison and when we lost her. It’s really hard.”
As Birnie agreed, “It’s gut-wrenching to see these headlines continue to pop up … waking up to the news about Lauren Bernett at JMU, I just started crying. For the crew of us who were very close with Morgan and at our organization, we’re heartbroken.”
There is no disputing the value of sports, on an individual and team level. The camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the lessons in working together and the challenge of meeting and exceeding limits. No one who loves sports wants to see that diminished. But there is just as much value in understanding that mental health is health, that athletes need to be at their best mentally and physically to perform at their best, that it’s courageous to acknowledge the need for help. After these past weeks of such tragic news, that 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 support for anyone in crisis. Text “Brave” to 741-741.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Free 24/7 support for anyone in suicidal crisis. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Trevor Project — Free, confidential, 24/7. Crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. 1-866-488-7386. Text and chat options at thetrevorproject.org.
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline — Free, confidential. 1-800-931-2237. Chat option available at nedawareness.org.
National Sexual Assault Hotline — Free, confidential, 24/7. 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Chat option available at rainn.org.
Disaster Distress Helpline — Free 24/7 crisis counseling and support for anyone experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990. Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.