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The two university officials took their seats on the dais, a giant gold “JMU” emblazoned on the black table skirt stretched out before them. Jeff Bourne and Timothy Miller spoke in subdued voices throughout the 30-plus-minute newsconference, both men offering the first public comments for a grieving campus six days after James Madison softball standout Lauren Bernett took her life.

“As we all know, Lauren was a very bright and promising young person, not just from a student-athlete standpoint, but as an individual,” Bourne, the school’s director of athletics, said that day. “This loss is going to be something that will be with us for a long time.”

Bourne added that Dukes coach Loren LaPorte and the players had decided to cancel the remainder of the team’s season.

» READ MORE: James Madison University's student newspaper, the Breeze, on the devastating effects of athletes' suicides.

Bernett was 20 when she died by suicide April 25. The McDonald, Pa., resident was a member of the National Honor Society and was the Dukes’ catcher and a key member of the 2021 Women’s College World Series team during her JMU freshman year. Bernett also had earned first- team all-conference honors this season, and, at the time of her death, she was named the Colonial Athletic Association player of the week.

The last series Bernett played in was against Drexel in Philadelphia, and she was 4-for-4 in an 11-4 Dukes victory on April 24, the day before she died.

During a two-month span earlier this year, Bernett was one of four female collegiate athletes in the United States to take their own lives. Stanford women’s soccer goalkeeper Katie Meyer, 22, died March 1; Wisconsin women’s cross-country runner Sarah Shulze, 21, died April 13; and Southern University cheerleader Arlana Miller, 19, died May 4.

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Timothy Miller, James Madison’s vice president for student affairs, called mental health “probably one of the largest issues on college campuses today” during his May 1 remarks. But mental health professionals and advocates for suicide prevention say that teenagers and even preteens — athletes or non-athletes — face myriad stressors well before they reach college, and that those pressures only mount as adolescence gives way to young adulthood.

With an ongoing pandemic and social media consuming people’s everyday lives, the challenges facing young students and student-athletes are daunting in 2022, even with the recent strides made in the field of mental health wellness.

“The pressures that we put on kids these days are too much, especially athletes.”

Carli Bushoven, executive director of the Madison Holleran Foundation

“We’re seeing young people with lower levels of resilience and higher levels of stress and distress,” said Suzanne Button, a senior clinical director of knowledge and advising at The Jed Foundation, a national suicide prevention nonprofit focused on teens and young adults. “That theme is born out in data. In recent studies, almost half of teenagers when surveyed have experienced some level of anxiety that interferes with functioning.”

‘A long way to go’

Suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The agency says the rate of suicide is highest among middle-aged white men. In 2019, it was the second-leading cause of death for the age group of college students, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In interviews, mental health professionals and advocates, athletes, and those who have lost a loved one by suicide say it’s crucial to start conversations about mental health awareness and education at an early age.

“I feel like we’ve made great progress in the past 10 years, but we still have such a long way to go,” said Carli Bushoven, the executive director of the Madison Holleran Foundation, named after Bushoven’s younger sister, a track-and-field athlete at Penn who died by suicide in 2014. Holleran was 19.

“The positive changes are that we’re trying to end that stigma that’s associated with mental illness,” Bushoven said. “I feel like people are becoming more comfortable talking about it, and opening up, having the conversation, ‘I’m struggling. I’m in therapy,’ or, ‘I’m looking to go into therapy.’ That’s wonderful. But the pressures that we put on kids these days are too much, especially athletes. It can be all-consuming for them when they enter college.”

Alyson Watson, a former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player, is the founder and chief executive officer of Modern Health, which connects work professionals with mental health resources and experts. Watson said she battled anxiety when she reached the collegiate level, following a decorated high school lacrosse career at Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

“I never really had the courage to speak up. As an athlete, you’re supposed to be tough, resilient...”

Alyson Watson, founder and CEO of Modern Health

“I would freeze when I stepped onto the field in college. I felt like I was having panic attacks,” Watson said. “And I never really had the courage to speak up. As an athlete, you’re supposed to be tough, resilient, and you shouldn’t be struggling with mental health issues.”

Watson said one way the conversation about mental health can continue to progress is having elite athletes or celebrities — individuals whom young adults look up to or think of as role models — using their platforms to destigmatize mental health. Tennis player Naomi Osaka has been public about her personal struggles, and she recently partnered with Modern Health. Last year, Osaka, 24, was fined $15,000 after skipping a French Open press event, and she said at the time she hoped the money would go toward a mental health charity.

“What I liked about Modern Health was the conversation around community and accessibility,” Osaka said in an email. “Oftentimes people want help but don’t know how to ask for it or where to find it. I hope with this partnership we can change that. Accessibility is really important to me. We have to continue to have the conversations [about mental health] because if we stay quiet, change cannot happen.”

Even with the advances in mental health awareness, the country’s suicide death rate increased by more than 30% over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Open conversations

Kim Richter, a suburban Philadelphia mother of four and a former All-American lacrosse player at Tufts University, said that in the weeks and months following the May 2019 suicide of her older brother, Jack, she “kind of took my own path” toward educating herself about mental health. She attended county-sponsored discussions on the issue. She sought out the directors of mental health organizations like Minding Your Mind. She read books on suicide, What Made Maddy Run, about Madison Holleran, and ABC chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton’s book, Life After Suicide, which discusses her ex-husband Robert Ashton Jr.’s suicide, and how she and the couple’s two children navigated the road after his death.

Richter’s two oldest daughters, Kelsey and Eloise, were on the cusp of their college years when their uncle died. Kim Richter said she and her husband, Jamie, were open in their discussions with their kids about mental health and suicide, and they continue to keep that channel open, if and when their kids ever want to discuss anything germane to those issues.

“Right from the get-go, my message to my kids was, ‘If you’re ever feeling sad, and you can’t handle it, know we’re here for you. Know you can tell us,’” Richter said

Now that her daughters are in college, with Kelsey playing lacrosse at Division III Williams, Kim Richter said she sees firsthand the challenges that college kids face, even if they’ve been given a strong foundation and the tools to balance their mental well-being. Richter also emphasized the unexpected upheaval created by the pandemic these last two-plus years, and the impact a global health crisis has had on kids at every level.

“Take athletes, who are balancing lots of stresses — grades, athletics, crazy scheduling,” Richter said. “They may have to go to weight training, watch film. There are practices, keeping your grades up, wanting to be social, wanting to have friends. It doesn’t stop. You have all that, and then, if you start to feel a little wonky, what if I admit I need help? Where do I fit the help in? All they want to do is stay on the path that’s in front of them and figure out a way to keep going.”

“It’s happening again and again...You can feel it in the air, and the concern about, why is this happening so much?”

Madeline Barlow, Drexel sports psychology coordinator and former NCAA swimmer

But navigating that path is complicated, and a traumatic event like a suicide can gut a student community. After Lauren Bernett’s death, Madeline Barlow, a mental performance coach at Drexel, said she could sense an emotional void on the Philadelphia campus.

“What’s really so challenging, we know that [Bernett’s suicide] isn’t the first time. It’s happening again and again,” said Barlow, a former Bloomsburg University swimmer at the Division II level. “To feel the overall energy of our athletes, and the student-athlete community as a whole, it’s heavy. You can feel it in the air, and the concern about, why is this happening so much?

“In my role, at the very least, all I can continue to do is, on one hand, support our student-athletes in whatever is coming up for them. Meet them where they are because all of them are in different places. All of them will deal with something like loss, grief, death in different ways. I also do what I can to be an advocate for mental health and for destigmatizing mental health by talking about it. We need to talk about it, in an effort to create steps to move this conversation into action and resources.”

Alison Malmon, who lost her brother, Brian, to suicide in 2000, started the Active Minds nonprofit after his death, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about mental health on school campuses and in communities. There are more than 600 student-led Active Minds chapters across the country.

“If somebody opens up to you about their mental health struggle, a lot of us don’t know what to say in response,” said Malmon, whose brother died while he was a student at Columbia University. “So we have developed a tool [at Active Minds] called, VAR, or ‘Validate, Appreciate, Refer.’

“VAR is to validate what they’re saying, appreciate that they’ve shared it with you, and refer them to resources and support. What Active Minds is doing is trying to equip people with the language they need in order to know how to respond.” The nonprofit is set to launch a VAR component for athletes soon.

Changing the climate

The Jed Foundation’s Button said that high schools and college campuses must have “strong, positive climates” to further foster a healthy environment for students and student-athletes.

“You want to make sure people know how to recognize when young folks are stressed, and know how to recognize when that distress is more serious, when they’re at risk for self harm, or suicide or substance misuse,” Button said. “And know what to do.

“We have to help educational systems develop comprehensive, systemic approaches to managing mental health well-being or preventing risk, while also fostering learning, growth, and development. Educators tell us that they are forced to be reactive to crises and unintegrated mandates, and we need to help with that.”

The NCAA did not respond to a request to comment for this story, but in a recent Washington Post report, an NCAA spokesperson said the organization “acknowledges the urgency and magnitude of” mental health problems. In the last year, the NCAA changed its decades-long policy on student-athlete name, image, and likeness rights, opening the door for collegiate athletes to be compensated through NIL deals.

“We also understand that the mental health crisis has been exacerbated — for student-athletes and others — by the isolation and other impacts of COVID-19,” the spokesperson told the Post.

For Carli Bushoven, part of her work for the Madison Holleran Foundation involves speaking to students about mental health awareness and her sister Madison’s story. This year, she said, she was asked to speak to middle school students for the first time. Bushoven said she was nervous going into the talk, fearing the students might grow bored.

“But I had a ton of questions from them, a ton of interest,” Bushoven said. “I try to focus on how mental health is important for everyone and that we all need to figure out what that means to us. If we are ever struggling, here are the resources available. The middle schoolers were receptive to it.”

Bushoven said she recognized after that discussion that mental health problems impact all ages, which she said was “kind of scary.”

“I talk a lot about the transition from high school to college. That’s what affected Madison the most,” Bushoven said. “One time someone came up to me and said, ‘Transitions can happen at any time in life.’ Going into kindergarten is a hard transition. So, I think if you can equip somebody with the tools to handle the hard transitions in life, I think they are going to be set up for success. And the sooner that we learn how to deal with hard transitions — with the resources available to us, if needed — the better.”

How to find help
If you or anyone you know is thinking of suicide, help is available 24/7:
Staff contributors
Reporting: Christian Red
Editing: Gary Potosky
Copy editing: Jim Swan
Photo editing: Rachel Molenda
Digital: Matt Mullin