If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
By Samantha Walravens, Forbes
The suicides of five NCAA student-athletes over the past two months have roiled the world of college sports and illuminated the growing mental health crisis among young adults in the U.S. today. Among those who died was Katie Meyer, 22, a star goalkeeper on Stanford’s soccer team who was just a few months away from graduation, Sarah Shulze, 21, a top runner for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Lauren Bernett, 20, a celebrated softball player for James Madison University.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses across the U.S. each year, and the mental health crisis among teens and young adults shows no sign of abating.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of a steep decline in teen mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a CDC survey published in April, in 2021 more than 4 in 10 teens reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 1 in 5 said they have contemplated suicide.
For Crista Samaras, a three-time All-American lacrosse player who remains one of the top all-time scorers in Princeton history, the deaths of these college athletes struck a deep and personal chord. Like them, Samaras was a standout on the athletic field, but beneath the illustrious glow lay a girl who was in deep and desperate pain.
“Their deaths take me right to the moments where I made plans to end my life,” says Samaras, who graduated from Princeton in 1999. “I was a superstar athlete at a superstar university, a lifelong perfectionist and people pleaser, and a sad, sad girl.”
She recalls the night her sophomore year when she wanted to end her life:
“I sat for hours in the freezing rain on the golf course in Princeton, New Jersey, purposely exposed to the elements, hoping they’d kill me. Because then I wouldn’t have to kill myself.”
Samaras admits that the prospect of death did not frighten her. Rather, “it was the relief I was looking for.”
She had tried to commit suicide several times before:
“I tried to hang myself with my belts. I swallowed pills to absorb the pain. I held a knife pointing to my chest and wished for a manic moment of strength to overcome me.”
In high school, she searched her house for a gun. “If I had found one, it would have been over.”
“Lacrosse Saved Me”
The common narrative around collegiate sports is that the pressure to perform and excel, both on the field and in school, raises the risk of suicide. Indeed, college athletes have myriad stressors that non-athlete students do not, including missing classes for practice and tournaments, keeping up grades, maintaining optimal physical health, and remaining injury-free.
While Samaras faced these stressors, she says that lacrosse for her was a saving grace.
“I loved the hard work and the practicing,” she explains. “It was tough, and even overwhelming on top of academic responsibilities, but the accountability I had to my team, my coaches, and the younger girls I coached helped keep me alive.”
Research shows that participation in college athletics actually decreases the likelihood of considering, planning or attempting suicide. According to a longitudinal study of NCAA college athletes over a 9-year period, the suicide rate among NCAA athletes was lower than the general and collegiate population of similar age from 2004 to 2012.
As noted in the study, the structured social networks afforded by teams provide a buffer against social isolation and create a sense of accountability and purpose among athletes– factors that reduce suicide risk.
“Overall, the pressure of bringing talent to our team, and being productive on the field, gave me tremendous purpose and sometimes joy,” says Samaras. “It was my identity, and it was easy to understand.”
While Samaras was achieving great success on the lacrosse field, other parts of her life were falling apart.
“My sophomore year was riddled with a number of setbacks and adversities — including losing our family home,” she explains. “I felt the only thing I offered that was of value was my ability on the lacrosse field. So I was determined to be the best there, at the expense of school.”
Samaras failed out of Princeton her sophomore year.
“They kicked me out and told me ‘to get my life together,’” she explains.
After a year break, during which she took classes at the University of Maryland and discovered her passion for writing, Samaras returned to Princeton.
“The experience taught me so much more about my own grit and resilience and overcoming failure,” she says. “Graduating from Princeton was, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
As founder and CEO of Brave Enterprises, Samaras devoted her life to helping teenage girls get to the root of their fears and learn strategies to become more “brave,” a term she defines as “moving in your fear.”
Her focus through the pandemic was on the softer side of bravery, particularly for overwhelmed female athletes enduring the pressure to perform on the field and in the classroom.
“It’s still about being assertive in the direction of your goals, but the programming now includes self-identity work, far more talk about how to spark joy in your own life, and how to tap into your purpose to create and maintain motivation,” she explains.
The first step in building bravery remains the same: Admit your fears.
“I never use the word ‘fearless,’” Samaras explains. “We don’t want our girls to be fearless. Being afraid is a natural human reaction, and trying to minimize it creates unrealistic expectations.”
These unrealistic expectations are particularly toxic for athletes who are measured by performance results, she adds.
The second step towards bravery is to admit when you need help.
“The healthiest people are the ones who are willing to ask for help,” she says. “The kid who knows that something is wrong and asks for help tends not to be the one who will ultimately kill himself.”
Instead, we need to keep an eye on the high-functioning, high-achieving kid who seems to have it all together and who does not ask for help.
“The kids who are really struggling are not going to let on that they’re struggling,” Samaras explains. “It’s not that they don’t need help. They just don’t know how to ask for it.”
How schools can help
Samaras admits that colleges have come a long way in their awareness of mental health issues since she was a student in the 1990s.
“Princeton didn’t help with my mental health, perhaps because they didn’t know how to,” she reflects. “There were no tools or resources when I came back. Now, they have placards on the dining tables that say, If you need help, call this number.”
“Growing up, I had no pathways to express my feelings, my creativity, my sadness, my joy, or my anger,” she continues. “It just bottled up inside me.”
Now, as a mother of two young children, ages 7 and 5, Samaras is making sure to give them ample opportunities to express themselves– through their clothes, their words, their creativity.
“If they can fully be themselves dancing to the Macarena, then we play the Macarena. If they can fully express themselves by covering themselves in paint and marker, then they cover themselves in paint and marker,” she says.
Samaras recommends high schools and colleges offer programs where students can mentor other kids, who look up to them for guidance.
“I’m alive today, in part, because I managed to start a company with thousands of members who saw me as a role model and guiding light. I thought about what it would do to little girls for their coach, their role model, their hero, to un-live herself. This was almost always my saving grace when I was toeing the line.”
Colleges take action
Colleges are getting the message.
At campuses across the country, a campaign to increase awareness about mental health and suicide is being rolled out in the form of a traveling exhibit called “Send Silence Packing.” Sponsored by the nonprofit, Active Minds, the display features 1,000 donated backpacks from family members who have lost someone from suicide. Each backpack is decorated with a message from family members telling a story of the person they have lost. Students can walk around the exhibit and read those stories.
The purpose of the exhibit is to keep suicide awareness front and center on college campuses and to let students know they don’t need to remain silent about their struggles.
“Faculty and staff leaders need to be proactively having conversations about mental health and letting students know, ‘We are here to support you. You are valuable human being,’’’ Samaras advises.
This is especially important in the world of college sports, where a culture of strength and mental toughness tends to eclipse mental health disorders and psychological distress. As a result, student-athletes often avoid disclosing mental health concerns.
Research shows that of the 33% of all college students who experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, only 10% of student-athletes seek mental health support. This stigma around athletes’ mental health inhibits open dialogue, education, and development of resources.
Student-athletes need support systems that extend beyond their teammates and coaches, explains Samaras:
‘‘Athletes need to know they have someone in their corner who is 1) not deciding their playing time, and 2) not directly benefiting from their performance.”