Gary E. Fendler
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Push through it. Tough it out. Suck it up. Shake it off. Calm down. Let’s go, let’s go!
And, of course, there’s “snap out of it.”
Those last four words may have worked well for Cher and Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck,” but it’s just another troublesome phrase to high school and collegiate student-athletes when they are struggling to balance their mental health with the demands of academics, social life and excelling in competitive sports – training, conditioning, practice, travel and games.
Pressure can feel unbearable
Whether it’s challenging phrases, team culture, personal expectations or the self-imposed pressure to perform at a high level, “elite” athletes are expected to adapt and control their circumstances. Anything less is, well, not acceptable.
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For some, the anxiety, depression or other pressures become unbearable, and tragically another athlete dies by suicide.
Last month, 20-year-old Lauren Bernett, a sophomore catcher and cleanup hitter for the James Madison University softball team, died. A medical examiner ruled the death a suicide. At least four other college athletes took their lives in March and April.
If by reading this piece you are searching for a definitive answer to “why,” you won’t find it here. There is no simple set of causes to track. Everyone is different as is their life’s experience. Outcomes can’t be predicted. If they could, we wouldn’t be having this public conversation because we would have intervened in our loved one’s final act.
Morgan D. Rodgers is the namesake for our nonprofit, Morgan’s Message. She played Division 1 lacrosse for Duke University in North Carolina. It was a dream come true. A highly talented athlete, recruited by multiple respected athletic programs around the country, Morgan’s life was lacrosse. It was her present. It was her future. In her mind, lacrosse defined her.
Knee injury ended her sports career
In 2017, as her sophomore season approached, Morgan injured her knee in what would become a career-ending event. Her life was turned upside down. Her old anxiety and depression addressed in high school returned. She pivoted inward.
Although cheerful and energetic on the outside, inside Morgan felt that she was losing control of her life and that she let herself and other people down. She felt alone, that nobody understood her.
Morgan was good at masking her reality. She didn’t confide in family or friends. She isolated herself.
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After a family vacation in July 2019, where she displayed no evidence of the seriousness of her inner turmoil, Morgan returned to her college apartment and ended her pain.
In a 2017 Ted Talk, Victoria Garrick, founder of The Hidden Opponent, shared her personal perspective on the behavior-altering pressures experienced by student-athletes. Garrick played on the University of Southern California’s volleyball team and spoke from experience.
In one section, Garrick humorously summarized her weekly schedule, which exacerbated her anxiety and depression: 16 units of class, 5-hour practice block, required tutoring, time to eat, office hours with a professor, exams, homework, games – out-of-state travel, pregame warmups and, finally, time to cry. Then repeat the following week.
Everyone else ‘looked fine. Why am I not?’
Through it all, the pressure to perform was constant. After all, she was an athlete and was expected to perform even amid all the self-doubt. Yet, inside, Garrick explained, “Everyone one around me looked fine. Why am I not?”
So, every athlete and every situation is unique. Are there some similar behaviors? Of course. But there’s no clear, all-inclusive list of behaviors, no predetermined steps individuals take that bring them to an inevitable conclusion.
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Morgan’s Message is built around campus ambassadors who facilitate peer-to-peer conversations with fellow athletes on high school and collegiate campuses. Our focus is to raise awareness about mental health challenges for student-athletes by eliminating the stigma, normalizing conversations in safe environments, and equalizing the treatment between physical and mental health “injuries.” Morgan’s Message doesn’t recruit. Ambassadors find us through word of mouth, dedication games, our website and the media.
In September 2020, we launched the ambassador program. In less than two years, Morgan’s Message has welcomed 892 high school and collegiate ambassadors on 427 campuses in 36 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. While we periodically “announce” our expanding reach, it is not a celebration as much as it is a statement. We’d be thrilled to see our program end because the mental health crisis had been addressed.
Morgan’s Message is but one of several organizations engaged in this focused effort. The Madison Holleran Foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, Kevin Love Fund, The Hidden Opponent and The TAD Project, to name a few, are each effectively addressing mental health concerns in the sports world and deserve support.
May 27 is Morgan’s birthday. Her family and friends will remember with sadness her tragic passing. On this day, as in other years since 2019, Morgan will be 22-years-old – again and forever.
Gary E. Fendler is executive director at Morgan’s Message, Inc. Morgan is his niece.