Silence Among Student-Athletes

Holleran, a standout track and soccer athlete in high school, was a member of UPenn's cross-country and track teams. | Source: University of Pennsylvania
Holleran, a standout track and soccer athlete in high school, was a member of UPenn’s cross-country and track teams. | Source: University of Pennsylvania

On January 17th, Madison Holleran ended her life when she jumped off a Philadelphia parking garage. Madison, known to many as “Maddy”, was from Allendale, NJ. Maddy, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania was a distance runner on the Women’s Track and Field team. She chose to take her life, but not before leaving behind some gifts for her family.

A few weekends ago, I met with some members of the UPenn Track Alumni community in New York City. They had gathered for the Columbia Invitational at The Armory, which was preceded by a reception. At the reception, they honored Maddy, and discussed their efforts to raise money for suicide prevention. There was no doubt that her untimely death shook the community. I had the chance to speak with alumni at the event. Some expressed that their experience on the track team was a bit different; many felt that their experience was a positive one, despite the stress and expectation to succeed.

Sports teams are known for their camaraderie and high energy; teammates can be an athlete’s family and major support system. However, if an individual is living with a mental illness or facing other mental health problems, the experience all together could have negative repercussions. In a college setting, students undergo intense amounts of stress. For first-year and transfer students especially, the transition to a college campus can be overwhelming. From balancing a challenging workload, working at an on-campus job, and being inundated by countless extracurricular opportunities, a student’s time management abilities are put to the test. Student-athletes in particular are also expected to display levels of exceptional performance. Athletes must learn to juggle the rigors of academics and athletics, the latter demanding a great deal of time for practice, training, and travel to other locations for competitions.

Bracelets made in Madison's honor were given out at the reception. The bracelet states a quote that Madison frequently said while still in high school:
Bracelets made in Madison’s honor were given out at the reception. The bracelet states a quote that Madison frequently said while in high school: “Today is the day to be STRONG.”

Mental health among student-athletes is certainly becoming more prominent in the media. According to Timothy Neal, “Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It’s a public health issue and now we’re seeing it more and more in our student-athletes.” Neal, Syracuse University’s assistant athletic director for sports medicine, notes that while mental health issues are prevalent among college campuses, student-athletes in particular are at high risk of encountering events that could “trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue.”

When I spoke to a member of the University of Pennsylvania Track and Field Alumni Board, they noted that the university hadn’t even sent out an official statement to parents of students, notifying them of Maddy’s suicide, nor the actions being taken in response to her passing. This individual expressed great frustration with how colleges and universities fail to address suicides appropriately. Days after the alumni reception, I learned that 18-year-old Elvis Hatcher, a sophomore at UPenn, committed suicide by hanging himself. Though he was not an athlete, his passing, which occurred weeks after Maddy’s, is evidence of suicide contagion. The Trevor Project defines suicide contagion as such:

Suicide contagion – The process by which suicidal behavior or a suicide influences an increase in the suicidal behaviors of others. Guilt, identification, and modeling are each thought to play a role in contagion. Although rare, suicide contagion can result in a cluster of suicides.

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College sophomore and math whiz Elvis Hatcher, 18, reportedly died after hanging himself, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. | Source: NY Daily News

One question I asked of individuals at the track and field alumni reception was, in their opinion, what was missing in the student-athlete experience at the collegiate level. It is true that athletic programs employ coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, team physicians and other health professionals. Student-athletes are thus able to receive support and consultation in exercise physiology, nutrition, and clinical/sports psychology (typically in response to physical injuries). At a recent panel, athletic trainers from around the country were reminded of their “unique position to reach out to college athletes and refer them to counseling.” Trainers are to always “be prepared to make an emergency referral” and to “follow the protocol of their institution and call law enforcement if the person is violent.”

However, one suggestion that one individual shared with me was that perhaps there could be a life coach or adviser that served as a resource and advocate for student-athletes. Still, until such a position is created and implemented among athletic programs, it should be the responsibility of the entire team (staff and athletes alike) to keep an eye out for signs that reflect mental health issues, so they may be addressed immediately.

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Source: Penn Athletics

The NCAA has put together a guide on Managing Student-Athletes’ Mental Health Issues. While this helpful resource exists, the fact remains that many universities and colleges do not have comprehensive policies and procedures in place. Perhaps this is because of a severe lack of statistics related to suicide and mental health in general. The lack in statistics and policies may also reflect that college administrators may not truly understand the state of mental health on their campuses.

“There have been several good studies over the years of college suicide rates, but having ongoing data would help understand trends and the impact of services,” notes Dr. Victor Schwartz, a professor at NYU’s School of Medicine. Unfortunately, national data on a subject as taboo as suicide is not readily available.

Such policies and procedures should address prevention, assessment, intervention and response to suicidal ideation and behavior. If all higher education institutions were to adopt policies that place importance on prevention and mental health education, it would help in changing the culture among college campuses, not just for student-athletes, but among the entire student body.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Doug says:

    This was a very interesting read! I wonder why young people with so much promise decide to take their own lives. When you can’t point your finger at hardship as a cause of suicide, then what do you point it at? There’s so much more to this issue than meets the eye.

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    1. Ryann says:

      Doug, thank you for your comment. I think that’s the root of it all: we don’t fully understand why individuals end their lives. However, we can certainly educate ourselves and others on warning signs, implications and other factors that contribute to/result from suicide. I’ll continue to post more information, links and research in future posts and on the “Resources” tab above, and encourage others to share their thoughts and feedback as well.

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  2. Randy says:

    It’s pretty well-documented in the media that there are schools with reputations for having high suicide rates, like Cornell University. But, it seems like suicide and mental health are just too unpleasant or taboo to discuss. These subjects just do not seem like they get treated with any urgency or priority. Perhaps it’s a function of our culture. Or maybe these schools are trying to preserve their images. Or all of the above. This is an uphill battle.

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    1. Ryann says:

      Randy, thanks so much for your insight! I would definitely agree that suicide is documented in the media, but not always in a productive way. The stigma associated with suicide and mental health certainly does prevent it from being a topic that is openly talked about. I think because of a combination of factors, including the ones you mentioned. But I think by educating ourselves and discussing it with true concern whenever it is brought up can help make it less taboo. It’s been a long process, as many organizations and initiatives around the country and the world have been working on this issue for some time now (from advocacy to anti-stigma campaigns). We’re certainly heading in the right direction.

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  3. Kristine Mo. says:

    Huh, so why didn’t UPenn send out an official statement? Or did you mean that it just took them a while to send out an official statement? Also, is there a scientific consensus on how to address suicide contagion? Or it’s just something that’s too hard to contain, or dangerous (i.e. increasing stigma) to?

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    1. Ryann says:

      At the time of the reception, no they had not sent out an official statement to the parents of students at UPenn. I wonder, however, about other universities and their policies. I know at W&M, emails were sent out to students, but I don’t believe my parents received any information.

      I would say that there is not a scientific consensus on how to address suicide contagion, prevention, etc. A lot of it stems from university institutions (students, faculty, staff and administrators) not being educated or aware of warning signs.

      The same is true in schools around the country, particularly at elementary, middle and high school levels. A lot of school systems don’t even have comprehensive policies for how to handle or address suicides. A future blog post will go into further detail on this, but I believe that in the US, only four states (Washington, Utah, Connecticut and Maine) require school policies or programs on suicide prevention. A total of eight states encourage schools to have policies or programs, and four other states have their own unique prevention approaches. The District of Columbia and the remaining thirty-four states do not require or encourage school districts to have policies or programs in place.

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