Athlete Pain ManagementMental Health Crisis & College Sports

Mental Health Crisis & College Sports

Harry Miller couldn’t have chosen a better setting or a better advocate for a near cataclysm. It just didn’t seem that way a year ago, shortly before the 2021 college football season. The Ohio State center, who made an appointment with Ryan Day, told his coach he was thinking about killing himself.

“He kind of opened up and was honest with about where he was [mentally],” Day told CBS Sports. “A big part of it was whether he wanted to continue playing football or not. At that point, to me, it had nothing to do with football. It had everything to do with where he was [mentally].”

Miller was on the brink, a tragic mile marker for many afflicted with what has become a spreading mental health crisis in college that expects say is certainly not exclusive to athletes. A combination of rapidly converging issues — COVID-19, politics, inflation, class disparity among them — has brought society to its knees in recent years.

In college athletics, however, the issues, ages and consequences are different — and possibly even more damaging. Mental health experts consulted for this story all mentioned that college is a time when minds, personalities and lives are being formed. Throw in the pressure of social media, relationships, even NIL, and the stakes are raised.

The numbers don’t lie. From 2000-16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a 30% rise in death by suicide. One study, cited by the Harvard School of Public Health, showed one in four persons aged 13-34 acted on a suicide attempt after considering it for less than 5 minutes.

“This is bad right now, and it will get worse,” said Dr. John Rosa, a behavioral medicine expert who served as a White House consultant on the opioid crisis across the last three presidential administrations. “Even if we shine a light and pay attention to it and understand it, it’s still going to get worse.”

We enter the 153rd college football season with a hidden enemy gnawing at the fabric of college sports. A mental health crisis, for sure. Some even say a suicide crisis among college athletes. At least four college athletes — all women — have died from suicide in the first five months of 2022.

Miller’s struggle stands as one of the most significant stories of the offseason. In March, he announced his medical retirement from football in an emotional, detailed tweet. The former high school valedictorian from Georgia referenced scars on his wrists and his throat. Eleven days later, the nation witnessed his story on NBC’s “Today.”

“People have called me brave,” Miller said that day, “but to me, it felt like not dying.”

Miller remains on scholarship at Ohio State as he pursues an engineering degree. On the day Miller sought his coach’s counsel, the help he received was immediate and significant. Ohio State has five full-time and two part-time sports psychologists who combine to cover athletes and staffs across all 36 sports. If that sounds ambitious, it is. Depending on funding, some schools are lucky to have one psychology professional.

Ohio State had already lost walk-on football player Kosta Karageorge, who died by self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2014.

OSU athletic director Gene Smith said the realization that more help was needed hit him within the last decade.

“That [realization is] when we started down the path,” Smith said.

Miller certainly benefited as Day immediately steered his center towards Ohio State’s significant mental health resources. Day’s father died of suicide when he was 8 years old. In the last year, during a series of interviews, Day discussed his eventual awakening after the tragedy.

The comprehension of his father’s death didn’t hit him until he was 11. As a youth, Day would get angry when teammates ran to their dads after games. During a May 2018 recruiting visit, Day was walking the halls with a Massillon, Ohio, high school official. He asked why the halls were so empty. Day was told students were not in attendance as the campus was dealing with its seventh suicide of the school year.

Looking back over the last 30 years, I think mental health issues saw us, but we didn’t see them.

Several studies show death by suicide has been on the rise for a while. In a May study, the NCAA stated the rates of mental exhaustion, depression and anxiety among college athletes continue to be 1.5-2 times higher than before the pandemic.

“I think it’s ever-changing,” Day said. “The way that players were built 20 years ago is different than 10 years ago, is different than 5 years ago, and is going to be different 5 and 10 years from now.”

We’re already in a time where the on-field aspect of college football is almost a distraction. It’s an era filled with handwringing about player empowerment, NCAA deregulation, the transfer portal and realignment all while the sport generally moves toward a professional model.

The college mental health crisis has taken an even darker turn with recent deaths by suicide.

Before the year was half over, four female college athletes died of suicide, keeping the subject in the headlines across a condensed timeline: Sarah Shulze (21, Wisconsin cross country), Lauren Bernett (20, James Madison softball), Arlana Miller (19, Southern cheerleading) and Katie Meyer (22, Stanford soccer).

“The pursuit of perfection can be a dangerous one,” said Jamey Houle, lead sports psychologist at Ohio State.

Houle saw a sports psychologist as a high school sophomore after massive success in gymnastics, including a national championship. After competing for Ohio State, Houle got his doctorate in the discipline that helped him at a young age. Since 2019, he has led the sports psychology department for what is regularly the richest athletic department in the country.

“The crisis is really shedding a light on what has existed, in one way, for hundreds of years,” Houle said. “Because there is so much light on athletes now more than ever, the level of exposure has never been seen like this. One person [on social media] could have 15 people make horrible comments about them in 30 seconds. It used to be, they’d have to send a letter.”

Smith played in a day when mail wasn’t electronic. As a Black football player in his first year at Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, he had issues. He just didn’t know how to describe them.

“Six student-athletes were kicked out of Notre Dame. Two of them were my roommates,” Smith recalled. “They were suspended for one year. I was a student-athlete by myself for one year. All the depression that I went through, I managed. I didn’t know because I didn’t know it. I just dealt with it.”

Former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski died by suicide in 2018. He was described by teammates and coaches as an outgoing leader. One day, he wasn’t there, having taken his life. His parents have become nationwide crusaders for suicide awareness, forming the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation.

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  1. Mental health crisis is a growing concern in the college sports industry. Athletes not only face physical injuries but also mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The Pain Resource article highlights how college sports can impact an athlete’s mental health and the importance of addressing these concerns. As a society, we need to provide proper support and resources for athletes to promote their mental wellness and overall well-being. It’s time to prioritize mental health in sports and take proactive steps towards improving it.

  2. feel every highschool and college should have a manual yearly gathering to discuss where students should go if they are having suicidal thoughts or feelings of self harm. The fact that should be emphasized the most is that mental health issues are a disease and a chemical imbalance that can effect anyone. A network of specialist need to be directed toward the individual that needs help because many helpful medications need to be taken for 14 days before the benefits can be effective and noticeable for the patient.


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