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RECAP: Mental Health in Sports & Addressing Teen Athlete Suicide


On Wednesday, March 31, we hosted a mental health panel addressing mental health in sports and teen athlete suicide. The panel, moderated by PCA’s Trennis Jones and Casey Miller, discussed the latest research findings on student-athlete mental health during COVID, specific tools and resources to be a gatekeeper for your team or community, and insights from a current student-athlete and youth sports coach.

The panel began by introducing our esteemed guests:

  • Sienna Durr, Student-Athlete, Women's Basketball, Columbia University
  • Tim McGuine PhD ATC, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
  • Kamla Modi, Director, Learning and Evaluation, The Jed Foundation
  • Rich Pruszynski, Veteran High School Lacrosse Coach, Current Youth Hockey Coach

Before beginning the discussion and asking questions that were sent in by attendees, Casey outlined the following topics to be the focal points of the panel: statistics and research surrounding mental health during COVID compared to before, leading through tragedy, prevention and how to create a good culture, and how we “navigate this new normal”.

Mental Health Resources from The Jed Foundation

This is a great place to start if you have a question about mental health or distressing feelings/thoughts. There are crisis lines on this page and many links associated with common signs/symptoms that a young person might be experiencing.

This is the program the Jed Foundaiton has done with the Ad Council in partnership with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention encouraging young people to look out for each other and reach out if they sense something is wrong. Here you can find videos and content related to how to have the awkward conversation about how a person is feeling when you notice something is not right.

Tim McGuine talked about his research in terms of the impact COVID-19 had on student-athletes mental health such as stopping sports and stopping school, especially at the same time. He sent out a survey to thousands of students across the country and was stunned at the results. According to the responses, the overall quality of life and physical activity was down, while feelings of depression and anxiety were up. There were differences between responses from different genders, athletes who play team vs. individual sports, economic status, location of the home, etc. Tim said that the response to this data has been welcoming and overwhelming since many of those in positions of power liked having statistical data instead of just anecdotal information, which is pushing them to do more in this area.

Rich Pruszynski started off with a staggering statistic that he has lost 4 players in recent seasons, 3 from struggles with mental health, and that it’s not easy to get through it. His biggest takeaway from this journey is to lean on others because it’s too difficult of a time to bear the burden of leading alone and dealing with this type of situation alone. Although it may be uncomfortable or difficult, Rich says that it is so important to be honest with yourself and let people know that you need help. It might feel impossible during such an unknown period of time, but a piece of advice he gave was to try and find the bright spots and stay positive. 

You can't lack courage as a leader to talk about this’s not about me, it’s about the players & kids that I’m in charge of.

Rich Pruszynski

Veteran High School Lacrosse Coach, Current Youth Hockey Coach

More Research Studies Shared by Tim McGuine

This study collected data from a nationwide sample of over 13,000 adolescent athletes in May 2020 and found very high rates of depression and anxiety. "Unfortunately we found that certain groups appeared to be particularly impacted, as female athletes and adolescents from the counties with the highest poverty levels showed the greatest symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as lower physical activity and quality of life."

"We report that compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of moderate to severe depression among our WI adolescent athletes had tripled during May 2020, while physical activity had decreased by 50% and quality of life had decreased by three times the minimally clinically important difference for the instrument used."

"We compared physical activity, quality of life, and mental health outcomes between Wisconsin adolescent athletes who returned to sport participation in the fall of 2020 and those who did not. We found that adolescents who played a high school sport during the fall had much higher physical activity levels and quality of life scores that were comparable to those reported prior to the pandemic. But most importantly, we found that athletes who were unable to return to sport participation were over 6 times as likely to report moderate to severe anxiety and more than twice as likely to report moderate to severe depression."

Later in the panel, Kamla Modi and Rich discussed prevention and how to create a good culture. Rich said that his coaching style is to lead with empathy and to use his position to really get to know and understand his players. He aims to establish a “caring climate” because there has to be personality in coaching, not just X’s and O’s. In his words, a coach’s job is to figure out how to use the teachable moments.

Kamla talked about how culture has to exist in order to have these conversations. Her advice to coaches and administrators to create this culture:

  1. There needs to be space to talk about these events
  2. You need to make time for something like this since there’s a lot going on right now
  3. Treating mental health should be the same as treating physical health

According to Kamla’s experience, the only way to truly delve into these issues is to be fully open to these conversations. Topics like these cannot be brought up out of anywhere, but rather you can open the door by talking to your student-athletes and doing little check-ins.

Current student-athlete Sienna Durr talked about how she’s gotten through the past year. She said the beginning was very difficult because no one had any specific details and she felt like a lot just got taken away out of nowhere. Sienna’s team, Columbia University, made it to the Ivy League Championship for the first time in school history, but it subsequently got canceled. Sienna talked about how not only herself, but her whole team and probably all of the other student-athletes who lost seasons and championships felt a lot of anger, confusion, and sadness. After the fact though, she said that her coaches did a really good job of trying to keep morale up by getting together on Zoom to talk about the future, things to look forward to, and to make sure the athletes were staying active. Her biggest decision came when trying to figure out her eligibility, and ultimately Sienna took a gap year this past year. The support of her teammates and coaches is what got her through this time, especially since she felt guilty about how she was feeling since a lot of her identity, she felt, was in being an athlete.

The most important thing to do as a coach is to just be there, and show that you’re there.

Sienna Durr

Student-Athlete, Women's Basketball, Columbia University

Thank you to Tim McGuine, Rich Pruszynski, Kamla Modi, and Sienna Durr for sharing your experiences surrounding mental health, especially during COVID and taking the time to speak with us.

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