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College Athletes and Suicide: What Parents Must Know So They Can Help

If your child is a college student-athlete, you may know the pressures and responsibilities they face can be intense. With that knowledge and recent news stories about college athletes dying by suicide* in mind, you may wonder how you can help protect your teen or young adult’s mental health.   

To learn about some of the challenges your student-athlete faces and how you can support them, we spoke to Katie McCoog, a licensed clinical social worker, certified child and adolescent trauma professional, and clinical director of Embark at The Poconos, a short-term residential treatment center in Pennsylvania.  

McCoog said mental health care is critical to this group of young people. 

“Participation in college athletics is a unique experience. The pressure to perform is hard to articulate to others not experiencing that emotional stress,” she said. “In response to recent deaths by suicide, parents have petitioned governing bodies such as the NCAA as well as some colleges for increased access to mental health experts and real steps toward breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness.” 

Facts About College Athlete Mental Health and Suicides 

You might be familiar with some of the devastating stories about young college athletes who’ve died by suicide, including Katie Meyer, Jayden Hill, Robert Martin, Sarah Shulze, and Lauren Bernett. Their tragic deaths have sent shockwaves through their families, communities, and teams. 

According to the NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study that reported survey data for fall 2021: 

  • 38% of male student-athletes and 52% of female student-athletes said that in the past month, they felt things were hopeless.  
    • 6% of males and 10% of females felt hopeless constantly or most every day.  
  • 24% of male student-athletes and 36% of female student-athletes said that in the past month, they felt so depressed it was difficult to function.  
    • 6% of males and 9% of females felt so depressed it was difficult to function constantly or most every day.

The study did not report data about suicides. According to a recent CNN article, the NCAA tracks but does not publicly share data on student-athlete suicides. 

College Athletics and Mental Health: Pros and Cons 

According to McCoog, it’s important that parents, coaches, teachers, and mentors understand the challenges student-athletes face.  

“Those not involved with clubs and sports on a collegiate level may not be aware of what these athletes are going through,” she said. “College athletes are held to the same academic performance as other students but also have workouts, practices, games, and public events. Where is their quiet time away from it all?” 

McCoog noted the positive elements of college sports include: 

  • Having a nearly instant connection and camaraderie with teammates. 
  • Learning to operate as a team toward achieving a common goal. 
  • Learning personal strength and self-discipline. 
  • Being part of a built-in community. 

Negative aspects include: 

  • A high pressure to perform in the spotlight. 
  • Balancing academic expectations and sustaining scholarships. 
  • Getting messages from angry fans through social media and other modes of communication. 
  • A desire to appear strong regardless of mental health challenges as well as other life stressors. 

In addition, McCoog noted that while sports can boost self-esteem and naturally alleviate stress, intense competition can result in more stress and lower self-esteem. Some coaches, fans, and parents can be so committed to performance they may not realize the effects of the high expectations of academics and athletics, she said. If an athlete doesn’t perform well, they might face relentless critique or even cyberbullying. 

Parent and teen athlete laughing after overcoming depression and anxiety.

5 Ways Parents Can Help Protect Their College Athlete’s Mental Health 

McCoog said there are several ways you can support your student-athlete’s mental health, including: 

  1. Lessen the stigma. 
  1. Start a conversation. 
  1. Create a support network. 
  1. Check in regularly. 
  1. Provide a safe space for conversation. 

1. Lessen the stigma 

Athletes tend to treat their mental health struggles with the same “no pain, no gain” mentality they were taught at a young age so they could remain competitive while dealing with injuries.  

“I think we’re talking about it a lot more than we used to,” McCoog said. “But mental health obstacles still have a stigma.” 

So, while some student athletes will visit a trainer for a sprained finger, she said, they may not seek help for their emotional well-being. 

Talking openly about mental health is just one of the ways you can help lessen the stigma. For example, in a National Alliance on Mental Illness article, one person in NAMI’s Facebook community said she shares what it’s like to have bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on social media. 

2. Start a conversation 

McCoog agrees with normalizing the conversation around mental health. 

“Speak about it as early as possible and preferably before your child needs to shoulder a lot of responsibility,” she said. “Use the professional athletes and college athletes who are speaking out as examples to help get that conversation started.” 

For example, swimmer Michael Phelps, who won 28 Olympic medals, and lacrosse player Cailin Bracken, a junior at Vanderbilt University, have shared their mental health struggles.  

“Are you aware of a famous athlete your child idolizes? You may be able to use the athlete to first connect with your child as well as discuss possible mental health struggles they are speaking out about,” McCoog said. “Does that make it more normal and less stigmatized? Start there.” 

She noted that parents may often hesitate to discuss topics such as suicide out of fear that they’ll plant ideas in their child’s head.  

“This is not true at all,” McCoog said. “The idea of suicide may possibly already be in their head. If they are suffering from thoughts of suicide, it may be a terrifying place if they feel ‘alone.’ Letting them know they‘re not alone is incredibly important to them getting better.” 

3. Create a support network 

As a parent, you naturally want to be the first line of communication, but McCoog said that may not always be the case.  

“Who is in your kid’s support system?” she said. “Who do they talk to or surround themselves with? Encourage talking about mental health to their medical doctor if they don’t feel comfortable talking with you. Mental health might not be the doctor’s specialty, however they’re trained to be able to identify mental health struggles and can help find professionals to support your child.” 

“People naturally utilize their peer support systems. These bonds can help student athletes focus on supporting each other’s mental health,” McCoog noted.  

She recommended finding nearby friends, relatives, mentors, or roommates who can check on your college student as needed. You should also know what mental health resources the school has, including names, phone numbers, and operating hours. 

“Build your support system and use it!” McCoog said. 

She also recommended you talk to your student about the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. They can call, text, or chat 988 to get free mental health support. 

4. Check in regularly 

It’s important to check in with your student-athlete regularly, but McCoog noted if you ask how they’re feeling each time you talk, you may hear, “Please stop asking me!”  

Rather than just keep asking, “How are you?”, she recommended going deeper and listening to the responses. You might ask questions like: 

  • Do you need anything? 
  • What does validation look like to you? 
  • What does listening look like to you? 
  • How can I help/support you? 
  • Are you safe? 

If your student is a teen, McCoog said it may be helpful to go through “The Five Love Languages of Teenagers” to better understand how they most feel loved and supported. Express how you want to help or provide support — and then listen, she said. Adjust your approach to meet their needs. 

5. Provide a safe space for conversation 

Make your conversations a safe space for your child. McCoog recommended you respond, not react. 

“If your kid comes to you with a problem or mental health question, it’s really important not to give an overly emotional reaction but to ask more questions and validate their feelings,” she said. “Let them know others feel this way too and that there are healthy and safe ways to feel better.” 

She said even when your child isn’t discussing their mental health with you, it’s important to give them a safe space to relax and not feel the pressure to perform. 

If You Believe Your Child Is Depressed or Suicidal, Take Action 

Finally, McCoog said, you should have an emergency action plan so you’re prepared if your child is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide. Know what mental health resources are available, and encourage your student to reach out for help. If you need to find a therapist, you can use the Psychology Today search tool. 

You should also identify who you can contact at the school if you’re concerned about your child’s well-being. McCoog recommended you reach out to their coach, residential assistant, counselor, or other school staff.  

“They may not be able to give you information or even call you back due to privacy issues, but you’ve put your child on their radar,” she said. “They can be on the lookout for any behavior that indicates your child needs immediate help, such as contacting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, local crisis services, or 911.” 

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If you’re having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 — the Crisis Text Line — from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.  

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.