Hornbuckle assesses mental health needs of athletes

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Update: “If you or someone you love is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or text HELLO to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.”

This week’s column topic veers away from sports, per se, and steers toward mental health after three female college athletes at three schools committed suicide this year with two taking their own life in April.

The death of Lauren Bernett, 20, a softball catcher for James Madison University, who, along with star pitcher Odicci Alexander, captivated the sport with the Dukes’ run to the Women’s College World Series in 2021, shook the sports community on Tuesday. While the school in Harrisonburg, Virginia, didn’t release the cause of death, the announcement included links to the counseling center and resources for those dealing with mental health issues.

Bernett last took the field for JMU on April 24 in a win against Drexel in Philadelphia, where she was a perfect 4-4 from the plate with a homer and two doubles, earning Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Week honors on Monday. On Tuesday morning, the school released the news of Bernett’s death, saying she was “a high-achieving member of our softball team and a great ambassador of JMU and our athletics program.” A player is dead, a team is devastated and a family is bereft.

Kate Malveaux, a volunteer assistant coach for Tennessee softball, shared on social media: You never know what someone is going through. Sending thoughts and prayers to JMU Softball and her family.

Nearly a year ago, Bernett and James Madison played in Knoxville on May 22, 2021, in the NCAA Tournament with the Dukes taking a 3-1 win – Bernett scored one of the runs – en route to James Madison making it to the College World Series.

Sarah Shulze, 21, a cross-country athlete at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died April 13 by suicide. She was an excellent student, earning 2020 and 2021 All-Big Ten academic honors, and recently finished first in the 3,000 meters and notched a personal best in the mile.

Her family made the following statement: “Sarah took her own life. Balancing athletics, academics and the demands of every day life overwhelmed her in a single, desperate moment. Like you, we are shocked and grief stricken while holding on tightly to all that Sarah was.”

Katie Meyer, a 22-year-old soccer goalie at Stanford, took her own life March 1 – and was the fourth Stanford student to commit suicide in 13 months. Her parents said in news reports that they had not seen any red flags and had talked to their daughter via FaceTime just hours before her death. She was a team captain, won a national title in 2019 and had made the dean’s list. Her social media offered no clues of despair or depression.

All three athletes excelled in the classroom and in their chosen sport. And at the respective age of 20, 21 and 22, they ended their life. The families are left with why – as are their coaches, teammates, classmates and friends.

The question every college campus administrator and coach has to ask right now: Are we doing enough?

It’s not enough to just have a crisis line or counselors available. A person in crisis who is hiding it well is not likely to make use of those resources. Athletes are especially adept at hiding pain, pushing through adversity, et al. It’s how they condition for sports and pressure.

Former Lady Vol basketball player Alexis Hornbuckle, who won national titles in 2007 and 2008, is assisting the Revitalist Clinic in Knoxville and has openly discussed her mental health issues while in college and afterwards.

Alexis Hornbuckle and Pat Summitt (Photo/Tennessee Athletics)

When she was at Tennessee, the late Pat Summitt suggested Hornbuckle see a counselor, so she went as directed, but she didn’t open up during the on-campus sessions. Athletes are visible figures – they’re on TV, billboards and marketing materials – so walking into any clinic space on campus can seem like the forfeiture of privacy. Since this was 15 years ago – well before the mental health awareness that exists now – she worried about being perceived as weak and not being mentally able to play. She worried that what she said could make it back to the coaches. While confidentiality is respected by therapists, the fact Hornbuckle wondered if that could be broken rendered the sessions ineffective.

“The athletes may not feel safe enough to go talk about it,” Hornbuckle said. “We don’t think the same. We don’t react in the same ways. We are trained to be resilient and strong and don’t always know where to put struggles with mental health. It’s another opponent we think we can defeat, so we don’t ask for help.”

Hornbuckle found a way to help by joining the athletics advisory board of the Revitalist Clinic – a regional company with locations in both North and West Knoxville – whose CEO is Kathryn Walker, a Tennessee native who played softball at East Tennessee State University on an athletic and academic scholarship. The clinic’s outreach includes athletic teams.

Hornbuckle said the first responders for a player in crisis will be the ones closest to the situation. Coaches and teammates need to be aware of a player’s moods, eating habits and changes in sleep patterns. If a player suddenly stops doing things with the team away from competition or seems isolated from everyone, don’t shrug it off, Hornbuckle said.

Lauren Bernett (Photo/JMU Athletics)

Her advice to a player is to “find someone you trust and know who has your best interests at heart and really talk to them.” A passive approach – availability if needed of a crisis line or counselors – won’t work with an athlete. It has to be proactive. An athlete should identify a coach, friend, teammate or partner – Hornbuckle said it has to be someone who is not judgmental – to confide in when needed.

That should be followed by an assessment of what is needed and options for therapy from sessions in a clinic or even a gym to taking a walk or meeting for coffee.

“Go where they are,” Hornbuckle said. “Meet athletes where they are.”

Following Tuesday’s news of the softball player’s death, Tamari Key, a rising senior center for the Lady Vols basketball team, shared on Twitter: praying for all my fellow student athletes and their mental health. being a student athlete is SO challenging in every way. make sure you are checking & loving on your teammates and friends.. life is so short.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press. She can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *