Student-athletes are at double the risk of suicide than they were two decades ago, study

Suicide has become the second-highest cause of death for this cohort, behind accidents. 

The suicide rates of college student-athletes have doubled in the past two decades, according to a new study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Oregon Health and Science University found that between July 2002 and June 2022, the rate of NCAA varsity athlete deaths by suicide rose to 15.3%, an alarm-raising jump from 7.6%. It has become the second-highest cause of death for this cohort, behind accidents.

Men were the most likely to die by suicide at 77%. Cross country and track and field were the two sports in which athletes had the highest propensity to pass away in this manner.

Jerry Walker, executive director of Mental Health Services at TimelyCare and former collegiate student-athlete, isn’t too surprised. The increasing incidence of suicide among student-athletes mirrors the increasing rate experienced nationwide by teens and young adults due to the pandemic and significant changes in the social and political landscape.

Moreover, there are particular struggles student-athletes go through that are relatively closeted from the general student population. The demand placed on student-athletes to “push harder” and past the limits of the average human can become detrimental to students’ well-being, even if exercise is generally viewed as a cornerstone to cultivating robust mental health.

“Nearly every health-promoting behavior in which we engage can be conceptualized on a continuum,” he said in an email. “Sleep supports physical repair and immunologic and cognitive functions, but too much sleep can be a sign of physical or mental health issues. Similarly, over-exertion can lead to worsening physical and mental health.”

Walker also points out how competition forces students to essentially balance two full-time jobs between academics and athletics. Consequently, there is little time left for self-care and broader social interaction. Their symptoms can be exacerbated if they fail to meet coach and teammate expectations, which can contribute to feelings of isolation or rejection.

The report concluded that institutions need to better their suicide prevention efforts for NCAA athletes. Institutions could get a lot of use from training coaches, athletic staff and other student-athlete leaders in recognizing possible signs of mental health issues and intervention tactics, Walker suggests. He also mentioned that they could seek out mental health professionals familiar with student-athletes’ needs and challenges and forge partnerships with them.

Sports programs that have a higher chance of exposing student-athletes to traumatic brain injuries should also be more closely monitored by medical professionals.

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Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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