Suicides spike as NCAA athletes struggle with exhaustion, anxiety and more

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Friday, June 3, 2022
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"As athletes, you know you will never be perfect," said a two-time softball champion who struggled. "But you will die trying to climb that hill to reach perfection."

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A recent survey conducted by the NCAA reveals college athletes are dealing with exhaustion, anxiety, and depression nearly twice as much now than before the pandemic began. Aside from the impacts of COVID-19, the pressures from success, scholarships, and sponsorships have attributed to a mental health crisis in college sports.

Nicole Mendes, a two-time NCAA softball champion and an Olympian from Houston, has reached the highest levels of her sport. She understands it isn't enough.

"As athletes, you know you will never be perfect," Mendes admitted. "But you will die trying to climb that hill to reach perfection."

The last part of Mendes' statement is tragically true.

Several NCAA athletes have died by suicide in 2022, including former James Madison University catcher Lauren Bernett. Mendes, with Oklahoma, played against Bernett in last year's Women's College World Series.

"These girls, these athletes, these people on college campuses are struggling," Mendes said.

Kierstin Collins, a licensed mental health professional, works as a sports performance consultant with the Institute of Sports Performance in Houston. Collins works with athletes in all sports, at all levels, including current student-athletes at Houston Baptist University.

SEE RELATED STORY: Mental health: Where to find help and resources in the Greater Houston area

"I wish I could say I'm surprised we're seeing more of it," Collins said. "The access the public has to a collegiate student-athlete, who, let's be honest, is an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old kid and has been thrown into independence, extra responsibility, and elite sports for the first time in their whole life, has grown exponentially."

Collins, who swam for the University of Texas, admits she dealt with her own mental health challenges as a student-athlete.

"I didn't know what to call what I was struggling with because nobody was talking about it," Collins said.

Mendes had a similar experience during the beginning of her sophomore year.

"I was coming off a national championship. I was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. I led the team in batting average," Mendes said. "I think I was overwhelmed by my own personal expectations. It took a long time to break down and open up to a few of my teammates, to my coaches, and to my parents."

Mendes is proud of the progress she has made on her mental health journey, noting that visits with counselors, psychologists, and her inner circle have helped. These are critical resources Collins said every athlete should be able to access.

"If we're taking a proactive approach, it means preparation for the new demands as a student-athlete and routine care as a part of being a student-athlete before there's a major issue or injury," Collins said.

Like treating physical injuries, mental health is part of making sure your body is ready to perform at the highest level.

"In order to be the best mentally, you have to be functioning at 100%," Mendes said.

Only 47% of female athletes feel mental health is a priority for their athletic department. The NCAA constitution mandates each school create an environment that reinforces the need for and encourages the availability of resources for physical and mental health concerns within athletics.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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