Check up on college athletes during Suicide Prevention Week
Playing high-level sports comes with elevated risks to their mental health
If you know someone playing high-level college sports, please check on them. Have a real conversation and make sure they’re OK, because it feels like these athletes are at a high risk of taking their own lives.
My family had a recent encounter with suicide when our son’s former teammate Terrence Butler killed himself. They played basketball together at Drexel University before my son graduated this year, and became close while sharing an apartment suite. Butler, who would have been a junior this season, was popular on campus, but had only played in eight games his first two seasons because of injuries. He was not playing with the team this summer, but still was on scholarship and part of the Drexel program, my son told me. His body was found Aug. 2 in his on-campus apartment.
Drexel players were told how Butler killed himself, but the cause of death has not been publicly released. That silence itself shows how society is not ready to fully talk about suicide – it still carries a stigma that the results of other illnesses do not.
I’m alarmed by the death of this young athlete, and not just because we are in the middle of National Suicide Prevention Week. The Black community is experiencing a major increase in suicides. The suicide rate increased 19.2% from 2018 to 2021, which is the most recent three-year period measured by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It jumped 58% from 2011 to 2021, and the rate for Black people ages 10 to 24 increased 36.6% from 2018 to 2021.
Mental health has been receiving more attention, in and out of sports, since the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic pushed millions of people into dark places. A few athletes, such as gymnast Simone Biles, Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan and tennis player Naomi Osaka, have gone public with their mental health challenges. College athletic programs have begun to pay attention to the issue, but the resources they devote to mental health are tiny compared with what they spend on winning. Last year, a spate of five college athletes taking their own lives was labeled a “crisis” by a few athletes and mental health advocates.
It’s obvious to me that college athletes face elevated risk factors for suicide. Division I players face constant pressure from coaches to perform, with the possibility of losing their scholarships constantly hanging over their heads. Year-round training and travel schedules don’t allow time to decompress. Many athletes are public figures who deal with harsh and often personal judgment on social media. Body-shaming is common for athletes, especially women. Many coaches prioritize their need to win over their players’ mental and physical health.
What is it like for a young person to get yelled at, belittled or cursed out regularly while playing a game they’re supposed to love, and is often at the core of their identity? Most Division I athletes can tell you how that feels.
Social media is full of posts about “mental toughness” from trainers, coaches, and others with zero training in mental health. They send the message that to secure and hold onto that elusive Division I scholarship, young athletes have to “overcome adversity” or “block out negativity.” Most of the time, those expectations are reasonable. But what about young people who have trouble with the mental challenges of sports? We don’t blame them when they injure an ankle or a shoulder – what about athletes who, through no fault of their own, are prone to injured psyches?
On top of that dynamic, verbal and emotional abuse are normalized in college sports. Some might say that being “coached hard” is necessary to succeed. But players used to tough out concussions, too. Now we know how dangerous that was. We should similarly reconsider the parts of our sports culture that risk the lives of athletes with mental health challenges.
“Mental health problems are still that dirty secret,” said Gill, who has a master’s degree and doctorate in sports social work and directed the student-athlete wellness program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gill estimated that the average Power 5 athletic program has three full-time mental health staffers to care for hundreds of student-athletes. Outside of the Power 5, programs might have one or two, and more than half of those non-Power 5 schools do not have any full-time mental health professionals on staff. (Some hire outside consultants.) Historically Black colleges and universities are starting to add more, he said, because their athletes’ need is greater “and because they care.”
Drexel is not the only basketball program where a young Black man died too young last month. On Aug. 21, Reggie Chaney, a forward for the Houston team that made the 2021 Final Four, was found dead in a friend’s apartment, and police said he was not killed by someone else. On Thursday, Chaney’s cause of death was still listed as “pending” by the medical examiner’s office, which said an autopsy was being performed. We don’t know if Chaney killed himself. One other unfortunate possibility is an overdose. Using illegal drugs is a common form of self-medication for people with mental health problems. Chaney, 23, was a week away from departing for Greece to begin his pro career.
Suicide risks for Black athletes are elevated, Gill said, because they disproportionately come from environments characterized by poverty, fractured families and violence. Their coaches, meanwhile, are likely to be white men who can have trouble forging an authentic connection with Black players.
“A lot of Black athletes are likely to commit a different type of suicide,” Gill said. “It’s not immediate. It’s slow … engaging in gun violence, addictive behaviors, or they decide, ‘I’m just going to do my 25-to-life.’ But I also think we’re seeing more Black and brown athletes dying by suicide in the traditional sense.
“Suicide is not about just about last year or last season,” he continued. “It’s about when I was 8, 10, 12 years old. It’s about those adverse childhood experiences. Those don’t go away unless you deal with them. So when that coach starts yelling at you like somebody in your family did, or that trainer touches you, he didn’t mean to necessarily touch you that way, but it triggers you. And this can start a spiral of issues.
“The other thing is that we’re fooling ourselves. We’re really not fully invested in mental health … I never want to say we’re not trying, but we’re not investing the resources to address all of these things that these athletes are dealing with.”
This week of suicide prevention awareness provides an opportunity for reflection and action. I think the NCAA needs to do more. To start, it should mandate that each program have a proper ratio of mental health professionals to athletes. For schools without enough money to hire them, there’s plenty of available cash in the college sports ecosystem. It would not be unreasonable, for example, to create a “mental health fund” by assessing a percentage of all coaches’ salaries over $1 million and all TV contracts over $100 million.
Coaches and administrators need training to address the connections between mental health and the extreme levels of pressure, coercion and sometimes abuse that too many athletes experience. The training also should combat the stereotype that athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are often Black, have some sort of extra toughness. What they actually have is extra trauma. If that trauma is not addressed, it can become deadly.
Finally, let’s eliminate the stigma around mental illnesses. They are not a sign of weakness. They have a cause, like a broken wrist or a torn ligament. When recognized and treated, they can be healed. There is no shame in how Terrence Butler ended his life. There should only be understanding – and action.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.