Athletes at forefront of mental health talks after suicides, speaking out about struggles

The news is hard to hear. In a little more than a month, several college athletes have taken their lives, including Lauren Bernett from South Fayette High School.

Athletes appear to be at the forefront of mental health talks these days, not just for the tragedies, but because so many athletes are speaking out about their struggles.

One is former University of Pittsburgh wide receiver Tre Tipton.

“That voice that was there for me, protecting me could’ve been my guardian angel, it could have been God. It saved me from making a mistake,” Tipton said.

Seven years ago on a chilly December night, Tipton had one thought dominating his mind — I don’t want to be here anymore, I just want to die.

He walked from Oakland to the Fort Duquesne bridge and stepped over the railing. As he was getting ready to jump and make the pain he was feeling so vividly disappear, his foot slipped and instinctively, he caught himself.

“Once I almost fell off I realized this is not what I want to do. This is not the person I want to be. And I realized I had to fight back,” Tipton said.

That decision was one that didn’t come easily to the Apollo Ridge High School graduate. He didn’t want to be anyone’s trauma.

“If I didn’t tell them that I had a problem that I had an issue, they’d have lost me and didn’t have any idea why they lost me,” said Tipton.

Stories like Tipton’s are the ones we’re sadly hearing all too much of recently. Since March at least five NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 athletes have died by suicide — Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer, Wisconsin track athlete Sarah Shulze, Northern Michigan track athlete Jayden Hill, Binghamton lacrosse player Robert Martin, and James Madison and South Fayette student athlete Lauren Bernett, who was laid to rest on May 10th.

Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Penguins wore the a decal on their helmets with the initials MB and the number 88. It was to honor Maverick Baker who killed himself in February. The 16-year-old played hockey for Bishop McCort in Cambria County.

“We live in a generation and time period, where we don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow,” Tipton said. “So let’s give (people) a chance. Let’s give them a chance for 2030, lets give them a chance for the 2020s. I think what we have to really do is come together and speak up, don’t be quiet, speak up.”

There is an emphasis now more than ever before on erasing the stigma associated with mental health, the conversations surrounding it, and the honesty behind the daily struggles. Those conversations are being driven by athletes in the national spotlight.

Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps opened up about his depression. Simone Biles withdrew from the team event at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health, feeling like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And in March, Ohio State University’s Harry Miller announced he was medically retiring from football. In a post on Twitter, he revealed prior to last season he told his coach he intended to kill himself. On NBC’s The Today Show, he shared his message to anyone experiencing those same dark feelings.

“I would just say hope is just pretending to believe in something until one day you just don’t have to pretend anymore. Right now, you have all the logic, all the rationale in the world to give up on it. But I would just ask to pretend for a little bit, and one day you just won’t have to pretend anymore, and you’ll be happy,” Miller said.

So why are athletes at the forefront of the mental health discussions these days?

“We’re just fed up with feeling negative, like we’re fed up with allowing everybody else to tell us who we are,” Tipton said. “Instead of saying no, this is who we are. This is what we’re going through. And I need help. Because you expect certain things out of these athletes, right? I feel what these athletes have done has given the rite of passage to say like, we’re not superhuman, we’re just humans that do something a little bit more super.

Pittsburgh’s Dr. Aimee Kimball agrees. She was the performance coach for the us women’s hockey team in Beijing.

“The human should always come before the athlete. Being an athlete is a big part of who they are, but it’s not all that they are,” Dr. Kimball said.

For Tipton and many athletes who struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental illness, the why behind some of them speaking out and speaking up now stems from those negative thoughts that crept into their minds during the darkest times.

“I got to the point where I was like, I’m not losing to me anymore. I don’t care what it takes. I’m just not. Even when it’s hard, when it gets worse or it gets terrible, which it has been in the last couple of years, I’m not scared of that. That’s okay,” Tipton said.

They’re now the ones grasping the reigns, taking control of the narrative, and admitting they’re going through a very serious problem and they need help. The ripple effect is a noticeable one, and one that could reach down to any adult or child struggling.

“When you see these big name athletes saying I struggle, I could still perform and do well but under the surface I was struggling, other athletes are able to see themselves in them and say, I’m going through that too. Like if he can admit it, or she can admit it, then I can as well,” Dr. Kimball said.

That night on the bridge seven years ago, an unknown voice saved Tipton’s life. And now, all he wants to do is to be that voice for those struggling, a voice for those who need it most.

“You know, there’s a kid out there right now who feels like they can’t talk about what they’re feeling of what they’re going through. And God forbid something happens to that kid. I want to be able to be the person where they’re like, if he can do it, I can do it. If he can say it I can say it. So it gives people that window give them that opportunity to feel comfortable in their own skin again. I want to be that reason,” Tipton said.

For the past several years, Tipton has run a non-profit called L.O.V.E., which stands for Living Out Victoriously.

The organization is a space for student athletes to talk about their mental health and their struggles and to support one another.