Wisconsin athletes discuss mental health and communication

Wisconsin soccer player Emma Jaskaniec remembers being hesitant to get help before her first season when a psychologist approached the team to offer help to anyone in need.

“In my eyes, at least at that moment, I felt like if I was to reach out to him, it must have been like I was having really dark thoughts,” Jaskaniec said. “It wasn’t really normalized and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, if you’re feeling anxious, you can contact him.’ I don’t think they wanted it to be like that, but I think in my eyes and in the eyes of a lot of other athletes, it felt like it had to be such a serious issue.

Jaskaniec said things have changed on campus over the past year — mental health is a more common topic in the locker room. It was also the topic of discussion Tuesday night for a panel of current and former Wisconsin athletes.

The event took place three weeks after the death of Wisconsin cross country and track runner Sarah Shulze, although it was scheduled well in advance. Shulze’s family announced last month that the 21-year-old took her own life on April 13.

“The balance between athletics, studies and the demands of everyday life overwhelmed her in one desperate moment,” Shulze’s family said in a statement. “Above all, Sarah was a power for good in the world.”

Shulze is one of three Division I athletes who have committed suicide in the past two months. Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer, goaltender for the Cardinal’s 2019 national championship team, died March 1. James Madison softball player Lauren Bernett, who helped the team get to the Women’s College World Series last year, died April 25.

Meyer’s family revealed that the 22-year-old took her own life. Rockingham County, Virginia, sheriff’s officials ruled Bernett’s death an apparent suicide last week, but said an investigation is ongoing.

All proceeds from Tuesday’s event went to the Sarah Shulze Foundation, which her family started to support women’s rights, student-athletes and mental health.

Madison UNCUT, the Wisconsin athlete-led nonprofit that organized Tuesday’s discussion, released a statement after Shulze’s death encouraging “institutions, athletic departments, policymakers, and people across the country to invest in resources that support student-athletes as they grapple with the pressures of playing sports while studying full-time.

Panel members detailed these pressures. Chris Borland, a former All-American linebacker, said he hopes the NCAA can provide more protections and less time for student-athletes.

2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball has opened up about his problems with alcohol, which ended his NFL career after two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Borland and Ball are now mental health advocates.

Jaskaniec said the pandemic has caused college athletes additional stress and has benefited from meditation.

Ball and Borland said they appreciate how athletes today are more open to talking about mental health issues than in the past.

“Kevin Love, I would say, kind of kicked things off,” Ball said of the NBA player from Cleveland who has been open about panic attacks and mental health issues. “Obviously we have a lot of other athletes doing the exact same thing. I think if you’re someone who has that stage, given the abilities to create a stage to talk about something, that’s something you need to talk about I’m starting to see the snowball effect that way.

Kris Eiring, a former sprinter from Wisconsin who now works as a sports psychologist, encouraged athletes to watch each other and go beyond the surface.

“We’re all so busy in our own worlds that we forget about our teammates,” Eiring said. “When you say, ‘How are you?’ when you pass by and they say “Awesome” you really don’t know. Maybe with the recent suicides, it can allow us to pause for a moment, just to check a little deeper. ‘Are you really okay?’ It would make a difference.

“You don’t have to solve your friend’s problem, but offer to go with a friend somewhere. I think we are afraid of this question because we may not know what to do. It’s okay if you don’t know what to do. The most important thing is that you are there and you are ready to walk with this person somewhere.

Jaskaniec said she sees these changes happening: “I was talking with one of my teammates earlier today. She says we feel like when we ask someone if we’re okay, especially with what happened, people actually start to open up more about how they really feel, what which I think is one of the biggest steps in taking the next direction.

“For things to get better, you actually have to seek help.”

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