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The mental health pressures that student-athletes face: The pressures we all face

National Suicide Prevention LifelineIn case of a life-threatening emergency, call 911.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 or Crisis Textline: 741741, type “Hello.”

Our worst fears when we first heard the news this week that JMU softball star Lauren Bernett had passed unexpectedly have been confirmed with the report that her death is being investigated as an apparent suicide.

Bernett, 20, was literally at the top of her game at the time of her tragic passing, having just been named the CAA Player of the Week after a monster weekend in the Dukes’ three-game sweep of Drexel.

And you might remember last summer when JMU softball was the story of the summer in the sports world, making an improbable run to the College World Series, and winning their opener in a huge nationally-televised upset of top-ranked Oklahoma.

People on the outside looking in might wonder how a successful student-athlete can hide the kind of pain that makes them think of suicide as an option.

Fact of the matter is, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness are not foreign to the world of college athletics.

Back in December, John MacKnight, the medical director for Virginia Athletics, joined “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show,” which I co-host, to discuss the multitude of strains that college student-athletes face.

“For some of our kids, I’ve heard them say, hey, I had a bad game, and, you know, I turned on my phone, and everybody in the world hates me, because I missed the last shot, or, you know, I missed an important free throw, or I struck out or whatever. They live in this microcosm of pressure that I can’t even fathom,” MacKnight said.

A lot of that pressure that athletes feel is internal.

“We have 700-plus student-athletes (at Virginia) who have become very much accustomed to being really good at what they do,” MacKnight said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be with us, and obviously, that’s true at every institution. And so, you got a lot of high-performing people who have tremendous personal expectations, and then, once they get to the university level, then it’s a real leveling process, right, because you were, in many cases, really big fish in a relatively small pond, because of your athletic attributes and your god-given gifts and how hard you work. And then you show up to UVA or any other institution, similar circumstance, and all of a sudden, you’re amidst a whole bunch of people who are like that.

“Figuring out where you settle out on a team, what your future looks like, you may have gone from the biggest dog on your team in high school, and you may never step between the white lines as a collegiate athlete, and that’s hard, understandably, that’s a challenge, that any of us would really struggle with,” MacKnight said.

On top of the on-the-field pressures, there can be the regular stuff that we all face from time to time – the breakup of a long-standing relationship, stress at home, stress at being away from home.

And then you can add another layer: that student-athletes, in effect, really have two full-time jobs.

“They have to bust their tails as students, and then they spend tons of hours working on their sport, and so, relative to the general student population, they legit have two full-time jobs,” MacKnight said. “And most of them do beautifully with that, as long as you don’t have a lot of other things that get in the way. But as soon as you have some of these other factors come into play, like an injury, or significant family stressor, or the academic life is really a struggle for them, and it is tough to keep the all that stuff balanced, that’s when you hope that they will reach out and say, I need assistance in some way, I need to talk to somebody about what I have going on, because I can’t really keep all of this balanced right now, and I don’t feel good about where I’m at, and I need some help to find a path through.”

If you’re reading this story because you’re going through a rough patch, just understand, it’s not a weakness to seek help.

I’ll inject myself into the story here for a brief moment to illustrate. From the outside looking in, I’m an award-winning writer, ESPN broadcaster, author of seven books, all-around happy guy, but I’ve struggled my entire life with sometimes crippling anxieties, and it took me until last summer to be able to begin to address my mental health.

“It’s not a weakness thing. It’s a facet of all of our lives,” MacKnight said. “At some point, the percentage of us in the general population who will have a significant mental health need over the course of our lives is the majority. Everybody does at some point, and so, I think we’re really trying to go out of our way now to normalize that experience, and to say that, if you are feeling this, hey, welcome to life, this is the way things are for you at this point in time.”

If you’re reading because you know someone who is having difficulties, you can be there for that someone, and you can make a difference that could be life-saving.

“All of us should feel comfortable, for people that we know and love and care for, to be able to at least open that door and say, hey, how are things, I’ve noticed things seem to be different, or, hey, I can really understand that you might feel like you’re struggling right now or you’re challenged right now, is there anything I can do to help?” MacKnight said. “Even a single question, sometimes, is incredibly powerful to open that door. It helps people sort of embrace, like, wow, I thought I totally had this wrapped up, and no one would know, and yet, it’s very clear that by my actions or by my behaviors, by my emotions or people that know me well, that something isn’t right. It’s time for me to fess up and get this addressed.

“We should never feel ill at ease about that,” MacKnight said. “When we feel like there’s a need, and you’re right, I mean, just like someone who’s limping or someone who’s short of breath, or somebody who, you know, looks like they’re faint, I mean, those are easy, objective things to look at and be able to say, there’s clearly a problem here, and I need to get you some help.

“This is really no different. If you’re paying attention, and you’re looking for the clues, then yeah, I think our role in helping people get to a better place is sometimes just to ask a few caring questions, and then, you know, help in any way that you have available to you to direct with regard to the resources that may make a world of difference that individual. I can’t emphasize that enough.

“It’s not getting that the numbers are going down. The numbers are going up. So, I think as we pay closer and closer attention, as we, you know, embrace this more fully, whatever we can do to help with individuals that seems to happen, that could be one of the most important things you do for somebody in their life.”

Story by Chris Graham

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