‘Last year, I was in the darkest place mentally that I have ever experienced’

2 months ago 48

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to  SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

It’s no secret that the pandemic dramatically impacted people’s mental health — and college students were no exception. Between 2020 and 2021, about 60% of students faced one or more mental health conditions, a 50% increase from 2013, according to the Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey of students. While that study didn’t tease out college athletes, earlier research has indicated that anywhere from 15.6% to 21% of college athletes experience depression, with female athletes experiencing slightly higher rates of symptoms. And a report from the NCAA showed that athletes expressed mental health problems at a significantly higher rate during the pandemic than they did before the pandemic.  

People have taken a renewed interest in the mental health of college athletes following the suicides of runner Sarah Shulze, 21, softball player Lauren Bernett, 20, cheerleader Arlana Miller, 19, and soccer player Katie Meyer, 22.  

TODAY spoke with current and recently graduated college athletes to learn more about the pressures they face, and how they’re coping.

Serafina King, 23, rowing

graduate student at University of Oklahoma

Before I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, I attended another university. I started struggling (with my mental health) and even experienced suicidal thoughts. I approached my coach and asked for help, but nothing happened. From talking to other athletes across the country, I learned my experience wasn’t unique. 

Courtesy Serafina King

Since starting at OU, though, things feel different. My coaches, athletic trainers and fellow athletes support me and others. I took a semester off for my mental health and my coach called me weekly to check in and see how I felt. It’s also easy to find a counselor to speak with when it’s needed.

Still, it feels like the mental health of student athletes isn’t addressed enough. The COVID-19 pandemic made something that was already absolutely horrendous significantly worse. For a while we couldn’t practice with anyone else. While that reduced our chances of catching COVID-19, it also felt isolating. I was by myself.  

It’s also hard for many students to overcome the narrative that student athletes are given incredible opportunities and resources. Sometimes when we speak out, people wonder why we are suffering — aren’t we being given such an amazing academic and athletic experience? But that comes with a lot of stress, including juggling practices, competition and a full academic schedule.

Courtesy Serafina King

I worked with other students to create a survey for student athletes to talk about how their environment and their coaches’ style impacts mental health. High-profile suicides increase awareness, but that is not enough if the deaths continue to happen. Too often athletes feel like they need to bottle up their emotions. Instead of crying, athletes might be cutting themselves, restricting how much they eat or grappling with suicidal thoughts. There needs to be outlets for student athletes to show their vulnerabilities and get support and be celebrated.

Salim Khan, 23, squash 

recent graduate from George Washington University

For two years, I was a team captain. Teammates often felt more comfortable coming to me (to talk about mental health). If there was something I couldn’t handle, I’d bring it to my coaches. But sometimes that kept students from talking to me because they were worried I’d rat them out.

                               Courtesy Salim Khan

Athletes experience a lot of pressure, but they’re expected to accept it silently. People believe that athletes should be tough. We’re taught to push through pain. While that often means we play through injuries, sometimes it also means that we ignore any mental health pains we experience. There are plenty of places we could go to ask for help, yet there’s a great stigma in asking for it. If I was struggling, I was more likely to talk to a friend than to a counselor, even though my coaches were incredibly supportive.  

Courtesy Salim Khan

My last year of college, most sports were canceled because of COVID-19. I could have chosen to stay an extra year to compete if I wanted. Instead I graduated and am working in real estate while I try to become a professional squash player. I noticed that many athletes were happier (without sports), surprisingly. They were able to enjoy college like other students without navigating tough schedules. Finally, we were able to do things we couldn’t for so many years because we had more time. 

Liz Gregorski, 20, volleyball

junior at University of Wisconsin

Last year, I was in the darkest place mentally that I have ever experienced in my life. I started failing my classes, even though I attended them consistently online. I barely left my room, which had become so messy I couldn’t see an inch of space on the floor. I ate very little. I felt no motivation and everything seemed sad and difficult. The only thing I felt excited about was practice. Even though I had dug myself into a deep hole academically, I thought I could fix it on my own. I thought that if I admitted I was struggling it would seem like an excuse. 

Courtesy Liz Gregorski

One day, I arrived to practice early and my coach approached me. He sat down beside me and said, “What’s going on?” I tried playing dumb and asked what he was talking about and he told me about my academic report. But he said he had also noticed that I seemed short-tempered and acted robotic instead of my normal energetic self. He said, “That’s not the Liz Gregorski I know.” I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that. It wasn’t that I was lazy or that I was a bad athlete. Something had changed. I felt so relieved, and for the first time it felt like it could be fixed. I started meeting with therapists a few times a week and I became involved in Uncut Madison, a group that focuses on humanizing student athletes. 

Courtesy Liz Gregorski

Hearing from my coach made such a difference in me getting help. He saw the whole me, not just the athlete. In the past, I have had to grapple with seeing myself as more than just a volleyball player. After I tore my ACLs, I tried doing box jumps again, but I had a panic attack. I joined a group for athletes recovering from injuries and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned that I am more than my sport and there are still so many people who love and care about me for me — not because of my athletic performance.

Pierce Jackson, 18, football and track and field

freshman at Trinity University

As athletes, we’re taught to hide our weaknesses and to continue to play and fight, and sometimes that means we hide our emotions. But I noticed that when I try to suppress my feelings, they pop up anyway. I might struggle to sleep because I’m thinking too much about something, for example.

Courtesy Pierce Jackson

It’s funny to me: When athletes sustain an injury, we’re so quick to go right to the trainer or coach to find help, support and treatment. But when it comes to mental health, we rarely seek out help as quickly. Part of that is because it’s seen as a sign of weakness to need help for psychological problems and there’s sometimes shame or embarrassment surrounding it.

You don’t know who to talk to as a student athlete. You worry about talking to your team because you don’t want to feel embarrassed. You shy away from telling coaches because you don’t want them to think you aren’t worthy of a starting spot because you’re showing weakness. It’s hard to turn to other students because they don’t understand the pressures of being a student athlete.

Many people think college athletes are perfect, and we feel the pressure to live up to that. But so often people don’t see the other side of it. Athletes might be struggling in the classroom or having a tough time managing their schedule. Society looks at the cover and forgets about us as a person.

Courtesy Pierce Jackson

I try to make time for myself outside of sports and class. I play piano, which is another way to express myself, and I spend time with friends. I want to make sure that my mental well-being remains intact.

I started speaking more about mental health through the Hidden Opponent (a nonprofit raising awareness of mental health among student athletes). I want student athletes who are hurting to say something, not just dwell on the pain they’re experiencing. I hope that they find support and relief. If we can break that ice and tension and become willing to talk about mental health and be more open, it can reduce that feeling of loneliness so many people experience. I hope student athletes realize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Amanda Pirkowski, 19, fencing

sophomore at Notre Dame University

 I don’t think people understand how hard student athletes work. The stereotype of the dumb jock persists even though most college athletes I know work extremely hard and care a lot about their grades. I learned my freshman year that I needed to be really organized to keep up with my practice schedule, club activities and academics.

Courtesy Amanda Pirkowski

This year, I was supposed to go to Qatar to compete with the U.S. fencing team for an international tournament. During a routine COVID-19 test for travel, I learned I had an asymptomatic case of the virus. I felt disheartened. I worked so hard and then I couldn’t go to this tournament. For fencing, every tournament is important because it builds our points and helps our standing. You have to be in the top 12 to travel internationally, and after missing that tournament I fell to No. 14. COVID-19 adds so much extra pressure.

While it can feel difficult at times, I feel lucky because I have an incredibly supportive coaching staff and the university seems to be really invested in our well-being. I recently started going to sports psychology, which helped me balance the challenges of being an athlete and even helped me improve my game. But if people don’t want to talk to their coaches or psychologists, there are also priests available for tough conversations. It’s different for everyone, but there are a lot of options.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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