This article looks at the difficult issue of suicide in young athletes. If you would like help for yourself, a loved one, or your club, please contact us, or any of the other organisations listed at the end of this post.
This post was updated on 1 February 2019, to include feedback from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF).
Madison Holleran was a talented athlete, and also smart, good-looking, and popular. After being a New Jersey high school champion in soccer and athletics, she then joined the track team at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. But less than five months later Madison took her own life, aged 19. Why do we see suicide in young athletes, who seem to have everything going for them?
In What Made Maddy Run (Little, Brown and Co: New York), Kate Fagan details Maddy’s struggles in these five months. It is a beautiful, but heartbreaking story, sensitively told. I think it is the best, and most important, sports book of 2018. We need to better understand the causes of suicide in young athletes.
The question of those who knew Madison, is ‘Why?’ It’s the same question you hear whenever someone takes their life; even more so when that person seems so successful. But no one, including Fagan, has an answer. However she suggests a number of factors which made Maddy vulnerable, and which may make other young athletes consider suicide.
MHF: Suicide is really complex and there’s never just one reason why someone may decide to take their life.
1. Moving up to the next level is hard
At high school Maddy was a star. While there, she succeeded at everything she tried. Sport was fun. But at university, Maddy no longer stood out. Instead she was surrounded by lots of other talented young people. While coaches and others reassured her, she did not see the same results as she had before. As well as this, she was coping with leaving home for the first time, making new friends, and a new demanding schedule.
2. The pressure placed on athletes from a young age
Adults can take children’s sport way too seriously, and this, according to Fagan, ‘makes it more difficult to cultivate other parts of their identity. Very little else in our society is rewarded as athletics are.’ (p81)
3. A lack of understanding about mental illness
Because of the stigma around mental illness, it can be very hard for people to talk about how they’re doing.
4. A culture in sport of being tough and carrying on through pain
Weakness is unacceptable in many team cultures.
In sports like football, toughness is celebrated and weakness is despised. We do what’s necessary to navigate this “manly” environment, and that means masking our feelings. Players learn to “suck it up,” “rub some dirt on it” and “gut it out,” usually with positive results. We’re so conditioned to doing this that we often default to such behaviour in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, masking emotional issues doesn’t work as well in the game of life as it does helping us play through a high ankle sprain.
It also helps explain why so many problems go unnoticed. Players become masters at keeping their game faces on all the time, often until it’s too late.
– Aaron Taylor, former NFL player, http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/game-face-isnt-only-face
5. The lack of resources given to supporting mental health in sport
Fagan describes it as ‘a few rusted dumbbells, a cracked mirror, cobwebs, and plenty of open space waiting to be filled’ (p87), compared to the often state-of-the-art equipment and expertise provided for physical wellbeing.
6. The under-resourcing of mental health services
When Maddy made a counselling appointment, she had to wait for two weeks to see someone. When she did, she felt the therapist did not understand the severity of her situation. Maddy never made another appointment there. In NZ, a 2017 report on those who had used or worked in the mental health system revealed
almost 95 per cent had negative experiences… and shared stories of inappropriately long wait times, an over-reliance on medication and an under-resourced, stressed workforce. – https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11841136
MHF: Think it’s important to balance this. In 2016 a mental health consumer survey found that ‘80% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “overall I am satisfied with the services I received”‘. https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/office-of-the-director-of-mental-health-annual-report-2016-dec17-v2.pdf p17
7. Less time for ‘free play’ in childhood
Children’s time has become more scheduled and adult-directed. Free play reduces stress and anxiety, improves sense of self, and the ability to problem solve and relate to others (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/3/e20182058).
8. The pressure to present an acceptable image of yourself on social media
Our ultra-connected world is often an artificial world. We carefully manage the image we present online. Psychologist Larry Rosen (cited in Greenfield (2015) Mind Change, Random House) talks about ‘a dangerous gap [that] could grow between this idealised front stage you and the real backstage you, leading to a feeling of disconnection and isolation’.
9. The tendency to communicate by text, rather than voice
In text messaging we miss cues such as tone of voice and body language, which help us to understand others.
10. The fear of raising the subject of suicide
At one point Lorraine considered asking [Maddy] if suicidal thoughts had crossed her mind, but she dismissed the question as an extreme reaction… Lorraine didn’t want to hit a panic button that didn’t exist. This question, to nearly everyone who considers it, feels loaded. They feel they may be introducing an option rather than reflecting one that’s already been considered. – p171Suicide prevention experts including the NZ Ministry of Health would advise her to ask the awkward question.
Asking about suicide will not put the thought in their head.
Ask them directly about their thoughts of suicide and what they are planning. If they have a specific plan, they need help right away.
Ask them if they would like to talk about what’s going on for them with you or someone else. They might not want to open up straight away, but letting them know you are there for them is a big help.
Listen and don’t judge. Take them seriously and let them know you care.
Preventing suicide in young athletes
Suicide in young athletes is not just a problem for US universities. If you are concerned for yourself, or someone you know, then you can find plenty of people who can help.
If someone is in immediate danger, call 111.
- Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
- Lifeline 0800 543 354 or 09 522 2999 or free text 4357 (HELP)
- Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
- Samaritans 0800 726 666.
SCNZ chaplains can help your club to prevent suicide in young athletes in the following ways:
- providing a neutral listening ear for anyone who needs to talk;
- walking alongside people who are struggling, and their families, as a supportive friend;
- training in suicide awareness;
- developing a critical incident plan;
- providing support following a death, or suicide attempt.
Our chaplains are not usually qualified counsellors. However, we train them to identify mental health issues and make referrals. They will also support individuals and their families through treatment and recovery.