Three high-profile college student-athletes have died by suicide across the United States since March. They include Katie Meyer, the star goalkeeper of the Stanford soccer team, Sarah Shulze, a top runner at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Lauren Bernett, an exceptionally talented softball player from James Madison University. These heart wrenching deaths are beginning to shine a light on mental health struggles among high school and collegiate student athletes, and many more people are stepping up and expressing their struggles.
Student athletes have an immense amount of pressure on them to balance their schoolwork, rigorous training schedule, sleep, social life, and simply time for themselves. There is also the risk of injury and possible low self-esteem if the student athlete does not feel good enough for the coach or team.
“Student athletes on campuses are hit with more pressure to perform and excel,” said Josie Nicholson, a sports psychologist and counselor at the University of Mississippi. “They live such hectic schedules with so many expectations. … There’s not really much time to stop and process anything.”
These young athletes’ lives can often be extremely stressful and overwhelming. People need to not forget that these are people before athletes or students, and young ones at that.
Especially when growing up playing a sport and just completely immersing yourself in that sport and in that lifestyle for such a long period of time, it can be hard for these teenagers to view themselves as anything but athletes. At this age, where these kids are student athletes, they are still growing up and trying to figure out their identity. When they’ve grown up with their sport being their main identification of themselves, as they get older it’s hard to separate the human from the athlete. If they are a runner or a soccer player, for example, it can be hard for these young adults to realize that they are anything other than a runner or player. This can be extremely hard on a person’s mental health to base their identity entirely on their performance in their sport, or when they get injured or have to quit.
“Perfectionism can come out with a particular tenacity for student athletes. The demands are high, and then if you’re trying to meet those demands perfectly, or perform perfectly in all those areas, that can be a really problematic recipe,” said Tommy Fritze, a sport and performance psychologist at the health and counseling center at the University of Denver said.
Victoria Emma, professional tennis player, spoke on the stigma surrounding high-profile athletes reaching out for help and taking a step back when needed: “It’s a fear about being judged. It’s a fear of being seen as weak when you’re supposed to be seen as a competitive athlete.”
Truly helping a student-athlete would require support from not only their parents and family, but support and reassurance from their coaches and teammates as well. These athletes mainly just need to know that they are heard and have resources provided to them if they are struggling and choose to get help.