How many student-athletes need to die by suicide before something changes? How many lost lives will it take for mental health to become a priority for athletic departments?
There have been 5 student-athlete suicides in the past few months. 5. How alarming. Yet, this isn’t new. Student-athlete suicides have been happening for years on end, and still nothing has been done to address the mental health crisis that is occurring.
Sure, maybe more people are talking about mental health.
Sure, maybe more people are posting about mental health.
Sure, maybe mental health has become a buzzword.
What has actually changed? What institutional and structural changes have taken place to address the mental health of our student-athletes?
The answer… not much.
And suicide is just the extreme end of the mental health spectrum. What about all the other student-athletes who are struggling with debilitating depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, trauma, racism, identity concerns (the list goes on and on)? Their lives may not have ended by suicide, but they cannot be ignored. The mental health crisis in this country is alarming, and it is so disappointing to see how much time, money, and resources are being poured into collegiate athletics, yet not towards addressing the very pressing issue of mental health. The NCAA has failed its student-athletes. Athletic Departments have failed their student-athletes. We are failing our student-athletes.
I’m a former D1 basketball player, and a current licensed mental health counselor. Here’s my story:
I played basketball at Princeton University. I came from a small public high school in NJ that did its best to prepare me for the rigors of an Ivy League school. And to be honest, I did feel prepared, academically at least. However, nothing prepared me for the shock to my confidence, self-image, and mental health that I experienced.
To say I was a closeted gay kid growing up is an understatement. I was in complete denial, and instead, just feared that something was wrong with me. I poured my energy in becoming “perfect” -- a perfect student, a perfect athlete. I was utterly terrified of failure. Luckily, I was smart and athletic, and had a strong work ethic, so I could achieve my false sense of perfection in the classroom and on the basketball court. The classroom and the court become my safe spaces. This mentality got me into one of the top universities in the country. I had achieved perfection. Now I would be okay. Or so I thought.
Attending Princeton was both the most challenging, yet most rewarding experience of my life thus far. It pushed me to my threshold, almost beyond. Being on the other side of it now, I can reap the benefits. Unlike high school, where I could get by with hard work, good grades, and high school athletic competition, Princeton upped the ante. I hate to say it, but I filled the classic trope of going from a big fish in a small pond, to a small fish in a very big, intelligent, athletic, perfect pond.
The thing they don’t tell you when you’re going into college is that everyone else who got there is probably as smart, if not smarter than you are. That everyone else who got recruited is as good, if not better than you are. My confidence was shot.
At Princeton, I struggled in silence (minus my parents who were the unfortunate recipients of many long, negative emails home). It seemed like everyone had everything figured out. The classroom and the court no longer felt safe, but I didn’t know how to find other safe spaces. I spent all my time at basketball or studying, and still didn’t feel like I belonged. But it felt like I had no time to do anything else.
On the outside, it probably looked like I was thriving (I count my blessings every day that social media had just begun while I was in college, and had not yet turned into what it is now). I put on a show - I worked hard, I laughed, I socialized, I passed my classes, I was a starter on the team, I was well-liked. But inside, I was tormented - paralyzed by depression, anxiety, and a growing sense that I was not living authentically. Yet, therapy never even crossed my mind --it was never a part of the conversation. At least not until my senior year.
I made it through all four years like this (as my therapist called it, “white knuckling depression”). Every year, I contemplated quitting. I even tossed the idea around with teammates, parents, coaches, and friends --all of whom listened with an empathic ear, but encouraged me to push through. They said it would be worth it to get the end. And for me, it was. I am so thankful I stuck it out --so thankful for my teammates, my coaches, and especially my family, who bore witness to my constant struggle.
(For me, I am glad I didn’t quit. However, for some people, walking away from their team, their sport, or their school is the absolute best thing for them. We need to honor that and allow more grace and empathy for athletes who are ready to walk away. We need to provide resources for those who walk away. The fact that most resources disappear as soon as an athlete stops their sport only perpetuates the pressure and the negative cycle. These athletes are not quitters. They did not give up. They chose themselves. I applaud every single person who is able to choose themselves).
For three and a half years of college, I struggled through this alone. Luckily, a high school friend of mine, who was aware of my struggle, encouraged me to give therapy a try. She was not an athlete, and I don’t think she understood or felt the nuances of the stigma that I felt in seeking help as an athlete, thankfully so. At this point, I was a senior. I knew I’d make it through my last year of basketball, I knew I’d make it through graduation, so I didn’t really see the point. But to get my persistent friend off my back, I decided to give it a try.
This single decision began to set my life on a different path. My therapist and I only met a few times (one of the pitfalls of finding campus counseling as a senior). But, my therapist offered me the space, kindness, empathy, and grace that I had failed to give myself, that I had failed to feel from others. She showed me that there was space for a different path, for a different definition of success, and for an imperfect me to exist.
Being on the other side, and having worked on college campuses, I know how rare this campus therapy experience is for so many. So many counseling centers are overbooked, have long waiting lists, and only offer triaged care. For a lot of students, it can be impossible to get an appointment, and when you finally do, it’s either with a therapist you don’t mesh well with, or it’ll be weeks in between appointments. I know firsthand how overworked collegiate counseling centers are. They are doing the absolute best they can, with the resources they have available. Counseling centers need more resources! They are drowning.
Finally, I made it to my college graduation. Little did I know, the pain, darkness, and confusion would only continue. I began my professional career as an investment banker in NYC. Needless to say, it was not a great fit. Long hours, meaningless work, and inconsistencies all set me up for unhappiness. In the midst of this struggle, I began dreaming of a different life, began asking myself what else I could do --questions that I had never considered, questions that never fit my idea of “perfection.” During this questioning, a collegiate student-athlete suicide occurred. It hit incredibly close to home, touching members of my Princeton family. This athlete’s suicide shook my world, and was a wakeup call for me to make a change. I started asking myself the same questions I asked above --why wasn’t mental health being talked about? Why was there such a stigma for athletes? Why weren’t there resources readily available? Why wasn’t there any education on this? Why weren’t we doing anything to help student-athletes’ mental health?
I now knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do, and how to get there. I left investment banking and pursued my graduate degree in mental health counseling. I became a therapist to help make a change, break the stigma, and be a resource to struggling student-athletes. I wanted to be a part of the solution --to hopefully prevent more suicides, more invisible struggles, more loneliness and isolation. If you are an athlete looking for mental health resources, reach out.
I know I can’t solve it by myself --I’m just one therapist. Something has got to give. Athletic departments need to pour more resources into athlete-specific mental health. Campuses need to pour more resources into their counseling centers. Campuses need to provide more mental health education and programming. Coaches, trainers, and administrators need better mental health training. This is a community crisis, so it needs a community response. We have to be better. We have to do better. Our student-athletes are depending on us.
Student-athletes --I see you. You are not alone. Ask for help.
Kate Miller, LMHC / And-therapy.com Licensed Mental Health Counselor in NY, CO, FL
Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line - Text Home to 741741