USA TODAY International Edition

There is hope for athletes struggling with depression

Campus ambassador­s aiming to eliminate stigma and normalize conversati­ons in safe environmen­ts through peer- to- peer interactio­ns

- Gary E. Fendler Morgan’s Message Gary E. Fendler is executive director at Morgan’s Message, Inc. Morgan is his niece.

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, confidential 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 might 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. 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 opinion column you are searching for a definitive answer to “why,” you won’t find it here. There is no simple set of causes to track. Everyone is different 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 final act.

Morgan D. Rodgers is the namesake for our nonprofit, 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 defined her.

Morgan ended her pain

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 confide in family or friends. She isolated herself.

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, a five- hour practice block, required tutoring, time to eat, office hours with a professor, exams, homework, games – out- of- state travel, pregame warmups and, finally, time to cry.

Then repeat the following week.

Others are fine. ‘ 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 fine. Why am I not?”

So, every athlete and every situation is unique. Are there some similar behaviors? Of course. But there’s no clear, allinclusi­ve list of behaviors, no predetermi­ned steps individual­s take that bring them to an inevitable conclusion.

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 find 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 effort. 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.

 ?? PROVIDED ?? Morgan Rodgers was a student- athlete at Duke University until a knee injury ended her sports career. She died at age 22 in 2019.
PROVIDED Morgan Rodgers was a student- athlete at Duke University until a knee injury ended her sports career. She died at age 22 in 2019.
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