When young college athletes begin their academic career, most have a foot firmly planted in the security of their home and family while attempting to place a foot into the unexplored world of adulthood. For some, the jump from being dependent on your family to taking that step to being independent and accountable to only yourself is an easy one but for others the shift can be sudden and all too drastic, leaving them stuck between two worlds which leads to a state of confusion, ambiguity, bewilderment and almost certainly anxiety.
Left by itself, this helplessness can grow and fester into harmful symptoms such as, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, and impulsive behaviors all of which could lead to suicide. It is a world of permanent solutions to temporary problems but one that you never think will happen to you or your family.
In early January 2018, the day started like any other for Tyler Hilinski, the soon to be starting quarterback for the Washington State Cougars.
He played Fortnight with his friends, texted his teammates about a workout that was to take please later that day, spoke to his parents about moving into a new apartment with friends and had recently learned how to shoot a gun at the range. None of the people close to him could know that Tyler would suddenly end his life with the very weapon that he had just learned to use. (Bishop, 2018)
Four years earlier, in January 2014, Madison Holleran, a freshman track star at the University of Pennsylvania, woke up after spending the evening watching movies with her best friend.
She went to class and stopped by the bookstore to buy gifts for her friends and family. She went about her day like any other normal college student except this day would end with Madison jumping from the ninth floor of the parking garage after she left her gifts and a suicide note for her family. (Fagan, 2015)
Jordan Hankins, a star guard for the Northwestern Wildcats, spoke to her younger brother almost every day and anyone you talked to would consider her a compassionate, talented and outgoing young woman but no one knew the inner turmoil she faced until they found her dead inside her dorm room in early January 2017. (Neddenriep, 2017)
Who would know after seeing these three beautiful faces that by the end of the day all three up and coming NCAA college athletes would take their own lives and leave behind so many questions of why and require those closest to them to search out those answers.
Every student, at one point for another, feels stressed out and it is normal to feel down or upset on occasion, but it is when those feelings become a consistent part of the daily routine that any situation could lead to the development of mental illness behaviors in young people and even more so for college athletes. With an overabundance of stressors, including academics, team performance, family and friend obligations, etc., the pressure to perform at the top of their game sometimes can be too much.
Recently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made a push to investigate and put a spotlight on the gradual increase of mental health issues that were occurring in student-athletes across the United States. (Rao, Asif, Drezner, Toresdahl, & Harmon, 2015) It seems logical that athletic departments have become more aware of the specific needs of their student-athletes regarding their overall mental health. This is very much in contrast to the past when the needs of the department and its administrators were unified in the areas of athletic performance, academic completion and the social demands from media, family, and donors. There is evidence of college athletes being at greater risk for developmental and psychological distress than the regular collegiate student walking on campuses today. (Rao, Asif, Drezner, Toresdahl, & Harmon, 2015)
When reading the stories about Madison, Tyler, and Jordan, it almost felt like they were orchestrating a juggling act of their life, so to speak. With the demands of long practices for their individual sports, competition trips, and sometimes separate housing areas away from non-athletic students, all of this can add up to feelings of isolation and restriction while often creating pressure to maintain the image of being the campus star. Some student-athletes can master the subtle balancing act of life and sports but why were Tyler, Madison, and Jordan not able to do the same? What made them different? What made them choose the ultimate ending?
One fact that was prevalent in the articles was that depression was the most common emotional issue amongst female athletes while males tended to abuse drugs and alcohol more than anything else. The 2017 Mental Health Disparities reported that while women may have attempted suicide more often, men were four times more likely to die. (World Health Organization, 2018) But what appeared most common in regards to the student-sthletes was that most of the athletes did not want to seek out help due to the stigma that is associated with mental health illnesses. They would rather suffer alone, which can compound the issue all the while increasing their desire for isolation.
At a 2016 NCAA national conference, Chief Medical officer Brian Hainline commented that while the media and health professionals are centered on CTE football symptoms today “Concussions may be the elephant in the room but mental health is going to be the game changer for the NCAA.” (New, 2016) While at the national convention, the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute released new guidelines for institutions across the United States providing guidance on the mental health issues with their student-athletes. At the convention, they released the “four best practices” for recognizing, counseling and treating mental health issues in college athletes. According to the NCAA Sport Science Institute website, the four best practices are as follows: (NCAA, 2018)
Institutions are encouraged to ensure that the mental health care provided to college athletes is provided by licensed and qualified mental health professionals.
Athletic departments are encouraged to work with qualified sports medicine and campus mental health professionals to develop written protocol covering emergency and non-emergency action plans for student-athletes facing a mental health challenge.
Institutions are encouraged to develop and apply mental health screening tools as well as a referral plan for testing student-athletes before they even enter the college athletic arena.
Athletic departments are encouraged to educate student-athletes, coaches, faculty, and staff in creating a culture of openness to seeking mental health care when it is needed and having the support from top down administrators on all program development.
With these four best practices in mind, it was Chief Medical Officer Hainline who said he would like all universities to operationalize these policies and stated “the problems that regular students have with mental health are exactly the same as the ones that student-athletes have” and campus facilities need to recognize this. (Neddenriep, 2017)
Again, if we look back at the stigma of receiving mental health assistance, this also plays into the situation when it is an athlete vs non-athlete. A current study by the NCAA studying 304 athletes representing sixteen teams within Division 1 institutions. The study results showed that athletes reported higher numbers on what they perceived as a public stigma versus personal stigma in regards to mental illness treatment. This meant the athlete felt that the public expected more from them than what the public really did. One hundred and three athletes reported significantly higher levels of stigma versus non-athletes and also felt that even though they may have looked like they had it all together to the public, the expectation from the public for non-athletes was significantly lower than for athletes. (Kaier, Cromer, Johnson, Strunk, & Davis, 2015) It was shown that most athletes would benefit greatly from educational programs that could help them reduce the idea they would be stigmatized for reaching out to mental illness professionals. Most of the programs could be found through what is available on the NCAA Sport Science Institute as it has proven to be a valuable asset to most university administrators. (Kaier, Cromer, Johnson, Strunk, & Davis, 2015)
As a Student Affairs professional, it is our job to watch out for instances of mental health behaviors in both student-athletes and non-athletic students. As mentioned in our textbooks, student affairs practitioners are expected to be counselors and have the knowledge to know when students are at risk. It is vital for us to be prepared to supervise, mentor, be able to manage a crisis and to respond to students who have concerns about suicide, self-harm or any type of substance abuse. (Schuh, Jones, & Torres, 2017) But in reality, how much responsibility does a university want to take on when it comes to mental health services. Are we truly responsible for how students feel or if they are having a mental breakdown?
College educators continue to dispute how much of an obligation they have to students in taking on the responsibility for their emotional wellbeing. There are those on one side who feel that institutions are places of learning and helping students figure out their academic hopes and dreams and do not consider themselves a facility for mental health treatments. You have the other side of the argument stating that it is a institutions responsibility to help their students be emotionally healthy and to keep them in school. By being healthy, it allows them to complete their academic career and also provides a massive financial base for the university in overall retention rates when these students continue on. But we also have those in the middle who think that while we need to help students with their mental health behaviors/illnesses, there is also not an unlimited amount of money to do that with. With budgets being cut left and right, typically the health programs are sometimes the first to go, unfortunately. All three sides of the mental health spectrum provide good arguments for both student athletes and non-athletes.
With this in mind, Madison Holleran’s mother, Stacy, just couldn’t understand why her daughter never sought out the help she needed since UPenn had been known to have good, reliable mental health programs. She knew that Madison was uneasy about returning to the University of Penn but nothing out of the ordinary so when she got the phone call that dreadful day, she was shocked. She began asking questions of the track coach, the Resident Director, counseling officials, anyone who would sit and listen. (Fagan, 2015) Many people said that Madison arrived with pre-diagnozed mental health issues but her parents said that this was not true. They questions that they asked everyone at UPenn will never have answers.
But the same could be said for Tyler and Jordan. Family, coaches and friends saw no warning signs or maybe they did and just didn’t want to believe that the people they loved most while at the height of the college career could be contemplating suicide. What happened and what did they miss as parents?
After the deaths of these three athletes, school administrators, coaches and family realized that the student athletes had actually suffered alone not wanting to burden anyone with their problems. The athletes never realized was by talking about what was going on could have helped others who might have been going through the same thing.
So where do we go from here? One thing that is very important to remember is that the NCAA has offered many great programs that allow universities the ability to implement mental health programs for their student-athletes. One of the biggest was the creation of the NCAA Sport Science Institute which is mentioned above. It is their aim to provide administrators and athletes a one-stop shop for information on mental health which will provide the “best environment for safety, excellence and wellness through research, education, best practices, and collaboration with member schools, national governing bodies, key medical and youth sport organizations, and the public and private sectors”. (NCAA, 2018) The website is an amazing resource of information for everything from Mental Health Workshops planning kits, training videos for coaches on ways to have a meaningful conversation about the well-being of their athletes and worksheets for administrations on how to come up with comprehensive programs to support mental health awareness programs and their students. (NCAA, 2018)
One of the best things I found about the Sport Science Institute was the vast “Fact Sheet” section that included information on the following: Anxiety Awareness, Depression, Eating Disorder Awareness, Risk of Suicide, Bullying, Mental Health Referral Decision Worksheet, Mental Health Campus-Wide Assessment worksheet, a Mental Health Self-Assessment and a handbook for managing Student-Athlete Mental Health issues. (NCAA, 2018) Each of these items could and should be used when implementing a mental health protocol on any college campus today.
But in the end, maybe the question of “Why?” is not the question we need to be asking about these student athletes and their deaths. Maybe, as parents and/or professionals, we must understand that a definitive story is needed for those of us left behind so we can feel better. Amid the chaos; order and understanding are supreme. We feel that we must find a reason for why a young, active seemingly happy person would make that ultimate choice. We can try to analyze it fifty ways to Sunday but in the end, if we learn anything at all, we realize that we need to learn to talk to others about pain and opening up to what this means in the hope that fewer young people make that choice.
(2018, December 2). Retrieved from World Health Organization:
Bishop, G. (2018, June 26). Sports Illustrated. Retrieved December 02, 2016
Fagan, K. (2015, May 7). Split Image. Retrieved from Espn.com:
Kaier, E., Cromer, L., Johnson, M., Strunk, K., & Davis, J. (2015). Perceptions of Mental Illness Stigma: Comparisons of Athletes to Nonathletes Peers. Journal of College Student Development, 735-739.
NCAA. (2018, Dec 1). Retrieved from NCAA Mental Health Best Practices:
Neddenriep, K. (2017, January 9). USA Today. Retrieved from
New, J. (2016, January 14). Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from
Rao, A. L., Asif, I. M., Drezner, J. A., Toresdahl, B., & Harmon, K. (2015). Suicide in National COllegiate Athletic Association Athletes. Sports Health, 452-457.
Schuh, J., Jones, S., & Torres, V. (2017). Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.