Mental health is a concern for student athletes after recent suicide deaths

In her second year of college, Liz Gregorski, 20, was depressed. She failed her classes, ignoring her friends and only getting out of bed to go to volleyball practice. She blamed herself for the academic hole she had fallen into and wasn’t sure how to get out. As a top athlete, she had internalized the message that there were no excuses for not performing. One day Gregorski came to volleyball practice early, as she often did because it was all she looked forward to. Her coach sat down with her and told her he had noticed her lower grades and her robot effect. Gregorski recalls saying, “That’s not you — that’s not the Liz Gregorski I know.”

She started to cry because it was the first time she realized that her depressed self was not her real self – and that maybe it could be better.

The mental health of student athletes has been spotlighted after at least five leading athletes have died by suicide in recent months: Katie Meyer, a star goalkeeper for the Stanford football team; Sarah Shulze, an award-winning runner for the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Lauren Bernett, the softball player who helped James Madison University to the Women’s College World Series; Robert Martin a lacrosse player at Binghamton University; and Arlana Miller, a cheerleader at Southern University. Others have also been reported, but not confirmed. The deaths of these young people who are seemingly at the top of their game has shocked their college campuses, their loved ones and college athletes across the country, who look back at their own mental health issues and wonder, Could that be me?

After her coach stepped in, Liz Gregorski was given access to psychological and academic help. Looking back, Gregorski, who is now a part of the team at UNCUT Madison, an organization dedicated to sharing student athlete stories, says she was overwhelmed with the pressure to be a student athlete.

“Everything is connected – our academics and social lives and sports,” she says. “And sports culture just taught us not to complain, just work harder and do better.”

Because many student-athletes go to school with scholarships that rely on academic success, they are pressured not only to be good at their sport, but also to balance a full study load. “The pressure continues to mount and mount,” Gregorski says. “Everything felt so much harder — like I was wearing a weighted vest.”

Grace Chelemen, a 21-year-old softball player at Marshall University, understands that feeling very well. In a tweet, she urged people to understand that student athletes are people, who often put their family and social lives on the back burner to focus on their sport. A student-athlete’s never-ending schedule is punishable by law, Chelemen said. “I wake up, go to class, go to practice, go to weights, go to the study, go home, eat, study, sleep and wake up and do it all over again,” she says. “You have no control. You don’t get sick days or personal days.”

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