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Suicide rates among student-athletes have doubled last 20 years

Apr 17, 2024, 5:46 AM | Updated: 11:19 am

student athletes suicide...

Jeremy Roach #3 of the Duke Blue Devils and Casey Morsell #14 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack lunge for a loose ball in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 31, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Carmen Mandato, Getty Images)

(Photo: Carmen Mandato, Getty Images)

Suicide rates among student-athletes in college in the U.S. have doubled between 2002 and 2022, according to the University of Washington (UW) through a study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Suicide is now the second most common cause of death, after accidents, among student-athletes.

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“We found that the annual mortality rate in this population has been pretty similar over the last 20 years, but suicide death is accounting for a greater portion of the total,” Bridget Whelan, the lead author of the study, said.

Over the 20-year timespan, of the 1,102 student-athletes who died, 128 died by suicide, equivalent to 11.5%. The average age of the students who died by suicide was just 20 years old while approximately 77% of the suicide deaths were male.

“Athletes are generally thought of as one of the healthiest populations in our society, yet the pressures of school, internal and external performance expectations, time demands, injury, athletic identity and physical fatigue can lead to depression, mental health problems and suicide,” the study stated.

Sports gambling and death threats

Student-athletes have reported receiving abusive messages from gamblers regularly on social media in the six years since legalized sports betting began spreading across the country. Some of these messages include threats of violence and even death threats.

“Colleges are stressed about it and have loads of instances of athletes being abused,” Mark Potter, head of delivery for Epic Risk Management, an international advocacy group dedicated to fighting problem gambling, told ESPN in 2023. “One college had over 200 [instances].”

During the 2024 NCAA March Madness tournament, Carson Barrett, a senior for the Purdue Boilermakers, made a baseline 3-pointer against Grambling State with 37 seconds remaining in the contest. Purdue won 78-50 off that 3-pointer, causing the team to surpass the 27-point spread sportsbooks made for the game.

Barrett received a direct message from a sports gambler after the game.

“You sure are a son of a b****. Hope you enjoy selling cars for the rest of your life. I hope you f***ing die,” the message read. “Kill yourself for taking that 3 you f***ing worthless loser. Slit your f***ing throat you f***ing f***. That was completely uncalled for. I hope you f***ing kill yourself.”

Barrett tore his meniscus earlier that season and has played just 21 minutes in the tournament, his last ride with his Boilermaker teammates.

“I had no idea what the (betting) line was,” Barrett said after revealing the messages. “I’m just out there, making memories with my friends.”

Social media’s impact on student-athletes’ suicide rates

The study pointed to the rise of social media apps as a potential contributing factor to the rise in athletes’ death by suicide. Social media has allowed student-athletes to see themselves in the public eye much more than 20 years ago.

“People celebrate the wins, but athletes’ performances can be picked apart,” Whelan said. “One negative comment can stand out over a thousand positives.”

The issue has developed an additional complication with the NCAA embracing NIL — the ability for a student-athlete to earn money off their name, image and likeness. If a brand wants a student-athlete to promote and partner with a brand, social media is a key ingredient bot for both the sponsor and the company. Brands want tons of exposure, including online, causing them to pay college athletes to post on social media, giving said brand exposure.

Angel Reese, one of the most prolific college basketball players in the nation over the last few years and the No. 7 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft, spoke about the emotional and mental toll social media had on her and how she has been exposed more than ever to online criticism and bullying.

“I’ve been attacked so many times, death threats, I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time,” Reese said after her team’s loss to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. “I just try to stand strong for my teammates because I don’t want them to see me down and not be there for them. All this has happened since I won the national championship.”

Student-athlete mental health statistics

In a 2023 survey conducted by GitNux, an independent market research platform, 30% of college student-athletes experienced a mental health care need in the last year. Student-athletes are roughly two to three times more likely to develop symptoms of depression compared to non-athletes in college.

The survey also found 21% of Division I NCAA athletes reported clinically relevant levels of depressive symptoms. More than a third of college athletes experienced decreased sleep quality during their competitive season.

“Mental health is an important issue for college athletes, and the statistics surrounding it are concerning,” GitNux wrote regarding its survey. “Recent studies have found that approximately 24% of collegiate athletes self-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, while nearly 25% reported feeling inabilities to be as successful as they would like in certain situations due to their mental health.”

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Colleges and universities, as well as the NCAA at large, have mounted an effort in recent years to address student athletes’ mental health, including increasing the staff and availability of university doctors, trainers and sports psychologists for student-athletes. According to the GitNux survey, only 54% of college athletes reported that they were open to talking to a mental health professional, a stigma UW and the British Journal of Sports Medicine want to amend.

“We’re still seeing athletes meet this extreme, unfortunate end,” Whelan said. “Each of these individuals is a human who, perhaps with greater support, would still be here. The job of improving prevention is definitely not done.”

Frank Sumrall is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read his stories here and you can email him here.

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Suicide rates among student-athletes have doubled last 20 years