Article by Paige Clark | Owl Staff
The additional stress that student-athletes feel can push them to a breaking point.
Lauren Bernett, catcher for James Madison University Dukes Softball, was named Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Rookie of the Week her freshman year as well. She also made the 2020 JMU fall Dean’s List at JMU and received the JMU Athletic Directors Scholar-Athlete award for the ’20-’21 school year. To top it off, she clinched a spot for this year’s First Team All-Conference and tied the single game runs-batted-in record this past April 16. After being named CAA Player of the week April 25, 2022, she was pronounced dead the next day, by suicide.
Katie Meyer, Stanford University. Robert Martin, Binghamton University. Jayden Hill, Northern Michigan University. Sarah Schulze, University of Wisconsin: All successful student-athletes who will not make it to see graduation day, who passed away from suicide during the months of March and April 2022. There are others; the ones that didn’t make headlines, who didn’t break conference and nationwide records, from smaller schools, fighting to survive the mental battle of playing high caliber competitive sports.
While mental health issues do not always come from taking part in college athletics, it has been shown that playing sports of that intensity and demand can in some cases elevate those feelings. Student-athletes and their fellow classmates are both stressed, however, for some, the added time commitment and demand to perform can push that stress to an athlete’s breaking point.
Many dream of the day they begin their college athletics career from the first time they see a recruit at a tournament or game of theirs. They are told how great the facilities are, how well ranked the program is in their conference, or how many national championships they’ve won.
Freshmen aren’t aware that the day they sign their athletics contract, they become 2% more likely to experience severe mental health struggles than their classmates who aren’t playing sports, according to timely.md, a telehealth resource company.
They don’t know they are more likely to develop an eating disorder or substance abuse problems during their time in college. Many have also been taught by coaches growing up to buckle down and overcome their mental struggles to not appear mentally weak on the field, making it that much harder to get help when they realize they need it.
When asked about how his sport affected his overall mood, Sophomore Quinn Madden of Harford’s baseball team states, “With baseball being a game of failure, it is extremely easy to get caught up in the negative side of the game.” Madden goes on to explain that “[Athletes] should be treated with care and make it be known by all that we experience stress unlike any other in regard to school and sports.”
On top of the statistical challenges that come from the nature of business that student-athletes are bred to thrive in, there are the additional stresses of classes, bullying, hazing, and financial stress that is faced every day, as explained by softball player Kaitlyn Delaney: “I have often felt like I would never be able to keep up with it all,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine that athletic departments don’t see it happening with check-ins for academic success, practice one to two times per day, and being their easiest source of contact for resources available and an outlet to talk to. But when athletes are on scholarship and wearing the school’s name on the front of their jerseys, they become employees. But these are just students.
They’re children trying to find their way through the hardest part of their lives so far, and there needs to be a bigger push to ensure there is a welcoming environment where they can flourish instead of wilt away until they either grow to resent their sport or grow to resent their life.
Student-athlete at Harford, Jessica Bouthet, commented that “Recently we have lost too many athletes to mental illness in all regions and sports. Mental health should be a focus at all times not just when we lost an athlete to this terrible illness.” She closed by stating, “One act of kindness can save a human life.”
Psychotherapist for Ohio State University Athletics, Dr. Candice Williams posted to her Instagram on March 9, 2021: “We have to put the person before the student and the athlete otherwise we are at risk of losing all three.”
Check in on your student-athletes, both the kids who never touch the field and the ones who are nationally ranked. There’s no way to know what is going on or what will happen unless we reach out.
Captions: Teams around the country find ways to honor the memory of Lauren Bernett, and to show their support of JMU softball with purple ribbons and by paying respects by including her initials when lining the fields before game time.