As news of another collegiate athlete suicide hits, professionals urge anyone feeling that level of hopelessness to seek professional help immediately.
In March, Stanford University soccer goalie Katie Meyer took her own life and, this weekend, the suicide of University of Wisconsin track star Sarah Shulze was announced. Both women reportedly struggled to balance athletics, academics and daily life.
It’s a familiar struggle for college student athletes, according to Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director of Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.
“For elite athletes, acknowledging mental health struggles can still be perceived as a weakness,” she explained. “There are a lot of pressures.”
Outcomes generally improve if coaches and other adults support students seeking help, such as in the case of Ohio state football player Harry Miller, who announced his retirement after suicidal intentions, noted Jennifer Ferrand, PsyD, director of well-being for Hartford HealthCare.
“(His story) is a great example of a young person being open about not only his mental health difficulties but the steps he took to address them,” Dr. Ferrand said. “Stories like this normalize help-seeking and can help young people to not feel alone in having mental health difficulties or suicidal ideation.”
This can be important given the complexities of suicide, added David Bendor, PsyD, a clinical psychologist seeing young adults at the Institute of Living.
“Young adults don’t commit suicide because of one factor,” he said. “It is usually a complicated constellation of factors, even chronic pain or trouble coping. We really don’t know what she was struggling with.”
Warning signs of suicide can include:
· Loss of interest in activities or lack of energy to do things.
· Increased or unhealthy substance use.
· Chronic pain.
· Withdrawal or isolation.
· Making references to suicide.
Natchaug, located between Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) and the University of Connecticut, is seeing an increased need for support.
“We are seeing a lot of freshmen and sophomores struggling with homesickness,” Dr. Schnitzlein said. “It’s also tough for athletes to deal with classes, social situations and sports commitments, it can feel overwhelming and students aren’t always sure how to reach out.”
She said many students, online during the pandemic, are now dealing with in-person classes and social situations they didn’t have to previously, which can lead to increased anxiety.
At ECSU, Andrea Reischerl, APRN, is embedded in the mental health clinic two days a week. She and Dr. Schnitzlein serve on the school’s Mental Health Task Force and are helping identify ways to support student mental health.
At UConn, Carrie Vargas, PsyD, director of ambulatory services at Natchaug, helps fast-track students needing outpatient mental health support in an intensive program designed specifically for college students. Transportation is provided to eliminate one barrier to treatment.
The collaborative work can be a game-changer, Dr. Schnitzlein said.
“The 18-to-26 age group lives more in the moment, and that moment feels like it is going to define their trajectory forever,” Dr. Schnitzlein said, adding that, “(The Stamford and Wisconsin athletes) had all sorts of eyes on (them) and likely felt a lot of pressure.”