Suicides among college athletes have grieving parents and students calling for NCAA action

Katie Meyer celebrates with her teammates after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels during the Division I Women's Soccer Championship in 2019.

By Natasha Chen and Dakin Andone, CNN

(CNN) -- Since 22-year-old soccer player Katie Meyer died by suicide in her Stanford University dorm room on March 1, her parents have experienced grief in tidal waves.

Steve Meyer said he and his wife, Gina, cry every day, and they don't know when the tears will come. It could be a Prince song Katie loved or talking about the plans their daughter -- a Stanford women's soccer star goalkeeper -- had after graduation.

"We're OK, but not OK," said Steve Meyer. "We're trying to stay strong for our two daughters, Samantha and Siena, and for Katie's teammates, and friends and anybody else, quite frankly. Yet we are shattered."

But in their grief, the hearts of Katie's parents have been doubly broken, they said, as news emerged this spring of more collegiate athletes dying by suicide: At least four student-athletes have taken their own lives since Katie died, according to media reports.

Creating 'Katie's Save'

The deaths have sparked concern and calls for action. That's why, the Meyers say, they have announced "Katie's Save," a program they hope will offer an optional consent form for any college student, allowing them to designate a trusted advocate who would receive a general notification in the event of challenges that could threaten their mental health, including a physical injury, a citation, disciplinary action or academic probation.

"Katie's Save" has not yet launched; the Meyer family is currently working with colleges and universities who may adopt this optional form in the future.

Gina and Steve Meyer said the NCAA is supportive of their initiative.

"Members of the NCAA (Sport Science Institute) met with Katie Meyer's parents and provided thoughtful commentary on the 'Katie's Save' initiative, and additionally introduced them to potential collaborative partners," the NCAA said in a statement to CNN.

In its statement to CNN, the NCAA acknowledged the "urgency and magnitude" of the "mental health crisis in this country," which it said, "touches every aspect of society."

"We also understand that the mental health crisis has been exacerbated -- for student-athletes and others -- by the isolation and other impacts of COVID-19," the statement said, adding the NCAA requires member schools to make mental health services and resources available in consultation with experts.

"The Association, its member schools and core stakeholder associations remain committed to prioritizing the critical challenge of creating and maintaining an environment where student-athletes can obtain mental health services without stigma," the statement said, "while thriving in an environment that promotes mental and physical well-being."

But student-athletes and families who have lost children to suicide say more needs to be done.

A final conversation

On February 28, Gina Meyer was on a video chat with her daughter, she said. She told CNN that Katie expressed excitement about plans for spring break during the call.

Gina Meyer said there were no signs of any distress that night. Katie was found dead the next day. While it is not known why Katie killed herself, she had been coping with a university disciplinary investigation for about six months without telling her parents, they told CNN.

"Had we had a minimal baseline piece of information regarding the situation our daughter was going through, we strongly believe the outcome here may have been different," Steve Meyer said.

The Meyers were not able to specify the nature of the investigation, beyond their understanding that it was related to Katie's "defense of a teammate."

Stanford University told CNN that the school cannot go into detail regarding the complaint about Katie Meyer that was sent to its Office of Community Standards, due to privacy concerns. But public relations staff also said that standard protocols were followed, including giving students information about mental health resources like confidential advisers familiar with the campus's judicial process.

The school also encourages students to bring in someone they trust to support them through the review process, including parents or friends.

At the time of Katie Meyer's death, Stanford shared condolences, saying the community was "devastated by Katie's death," and explained that, "We are not able to share information about confidential student disciplinary matters."

Student-athletes face unique challenges

Although there have been several recent cases of student-athlete suicides, there is no data available that shows a significant increase in the rate of suicide among this demographic.

The NCAA told CNN it tracks, but does not publicly share, data on student-athlete suicides.

"I think that we tend to hear about people who die by suicide when it's in a surprising group," said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior vice-president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"We look at young female college athletes and we think, 'wow, they have everything.' But we don't take a closer look at what's going on with them ... Often we ascribe to them that they're doing great and we don't ask them, 'how are you doing?'"

This problem isn't unique to female students or athletes, said Harkavy-Friedman. And it's worth noting that for many, sports -- particularly team sports -- bring many benefits for athletes, like a built-in community and support system. So sports, said Harkavy-Friedman, can be either a pressure point or an outlet. "That's the thing about suicide: It cuts across all demographics."

Still, the day-to-day demands on student-athletes create unique challenges when it comes to mental health, experts who work with them told CNN following Meyer's death.

Student-athletes juggle the same demands as their non-athlete peers, including maintaining their grades and social lives. But there's also the pressure to perform on the field or court, demanding practice and workout schedules, traveling -- and scrutiny from the public and fans through social and traditional media.

In addition, those experts acknowledged a stigma persists within the sports community -- as it does in others -- that makes it difficult for those who might be struggling to seek treatment for mental health issues.

Two-thirds of student-athlete respondents said they know where to seek resources if they have mental health concerns, according to a recently published survey taken in the fall of 2021. But less than half said they felt comfortable seeking a mental health provider.

While there have been huge strides toward combating the stigma surrounding mental health issues, in part thanks to high-profile athletes who have spoken out about their own struggles, athletes are still encouraged to view themselves as people who can push through adversity.

Chris Bader, the assistant athletic director for mental health and performance at the University of Arkansas, referred to this as an "old school mentality of 'rub some dirt on it and tough it out.'"

Among the schools where student-athletes recently died by suicide, most responded to CNN about their mental health resources, describing licensed mental health practitioners and peer mental wellness organizations.

Northern Michigan University added that conversations after the death of track and field athlete Jayden Hill spurred a comprehensive review of the school's mental health services, which will be conducted over the summer.

Stanford University shared its mental health resources on campus, including recent additional clinical staff for counseling services, additional staff for its non-clinical wellness coaching program, a new, free phone and text counseling service, and mental health bystander training.

In a statement, the university said: "We recognize the unique challenges facing student-athletes as they work to balance academic and athletic demands. We are committed to connecting student-athletes to the robust resources available to the university community, in addition to individual team meetings with our sports psychology team and drop-in spaces where grieving student-athletes can go for help."

One athlete's 'breaking point'

Lindsey Kilpatrick, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she played Division I field hockey, knows firsthand what it's like to face these challenges.

She dealt for several years with severe depression and anxiety, even as she and her teammates tried to be open about and normalize discussion of mental health and its importance, she told CNN.

But she kept her own struggles, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, isolation and remote learning, private.

"I felt like I was losing love of learning, love of sport," she said.

Finally, she hit a "breaking point" during a warmup before a game in April 2021, said Kilpatrick. She had a panic attack on the field, which she usually viewed as a safe space. "The fact that happened there was a reality check for me, that it had gone too far," she said.

Kilpatrick ended up taking a break, going home and missing several games -- something she had never considered or thought possible, she said.

Kilpatrick's in a much better place today, she said, after seeking help. She also became a campus ambassador for Morgan's Message -- a nonprofit organization started by the family of Morgan Rodgers, a Duke University lacrosse player who died by suicide in 2019, that aims to raise mental health awareness for athletes on college campuses.

Dona Rodgers, Morgan's mother, told CNN recent suicides by collegiate athletes have shaken her, and made her think about the important work that more than 1,000 Morgan's Message ambassadors are doing to host peer-to-peer conversations about mental health.

"What is going on out there, and how can we find out what's happening? What's different? Then the other thing was, I hate to say it, but it's like -- Is it just not working?" Rodgers said.

But she added that she quickly realized the work of the ambassadors is in fact effective, pointing to positive feedback from students who said their advocacy and conversations helped them through their own struggles.

"We just can't get to everyone at this exact same time. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop trying," Rodgers said.

'How many lives does it take?'

Now that effort includes Kilpatrick challenging the NCAA to do more.

She grew angrier and angrier over the spring as she learned of one student-athlete after another who had died by suicide, she said. She felt she needed to speak up and, with her time as a college athlete ending, figured she had nothing to lose.

Kilpatrick wrote a letter to the NCAA's board of directors, asking them to intervene, writing, "How many lives does it take?" She also shared the letter on Change.org, where it's been signed by more than 35,000 people voicing support as of this writing.

Kilpatrick's letter to the NCAA called for a mental health practitioner to be mandated at every university, and for their salaries to be subsidized at eligible institutions to lessen the cost to universities and their athletic departments.

She also called for increased education for staff and coaches in the form of annual mandatory training so they can recognize the signs of mental illness.

Having dedicated mental health practitioners familiar with the demands on student-athletes is important, experts told CNN, because they are better equipped to tailor treatment.

"A non-sport-trained clinician might say something like, 'Well if your sport is stressing you out so much, why not just quit?'" said Bader. "That's like asking them to not be right-handed."

The NCAA told CNN all three of its divisions require each school to implement a plan consistent with a Mental Health Best Practices document that was created in 2016 and revised in 2020. It encourages schools to ensure that mental health care is provided by a licensed individual, to develop written action plans for student-athletes facing a mental health challenge and to develop and apply mental health screening tools.

Some colleges may be located in areas where there aren't any licensed mental health providers on campus for any students, said the NCAA's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brian Hainline. The Mental Health Best Practices document states that in such cases the practitioner may be off-campus but easily accessible to student-athletes.

"Campuses are to rehearse both routine referral plans and mental health emergency action plans. It is not simply the hiring of someone that ensures mental health care for all student-athletes; it is having a plan in place that is specific for the needs of the campus," said Hainline.

The parents of both Katie Meyer and Morgan Rodgers said their daughters felt they had to cope with their struggles alone. Both families described young women who were talented, ambitious and had tried to chart their lives, on the precipice of a seemingly daunting post-collegiate adulthood.

Every family's grief process is different, and while the Meyer and Rodgers families are connected in their shared pain, Rodgers said she does not contact every grieving family unless they would like to talk. Rodgers hopes each person finds their own way to process emotions, and not to let others tell them how to grieve.

The Meyers say they plan to focus on Katie's legacy through small, tangible steps like the opt-in consent form for students. "Katie wanted to do big things in this world. And she was well on her way to doing that," Steve Meyer said.

"Everybody at the NCAA, cross campuses, universities, everybody has a chance to help her do some big things now."

The-CNN-Wire
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