The University of Wisconsin athletic department over the past half-year has significantly bulked up its resources to support athletes struggling with mental health and is making efforts to give others — teammates, coaches, support staff, etc. — the tools they need to help those in need.
New UW deputy athletic director Marcus Sedberry said mental health was talked about often during his interviews with athletic director Chris McIntosh, who’s made it clear the topic is high on his priority list.
UW was helpful in providing information about its efforts surrounding mental health, but one lingering issue left me uncomfortable: It was impossible to write this piece without mentioning the Sarah Shulze tragedy.
Shulze, a member of the women’s cross country and track and field team, died by suicide in mid-April, a tragedy that raised the urgency inside the department to make sure athletes have what they need to cope with mental health struggles.
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“The tragedy with Sarah, it hits home with us,” Sedberry said. “What it does is gives us an opportunity to look in the mirror and to learn from that situation the same way we learn from other situations around the country to perform best practices. You don’t want it to be one of your own and it certainly hurts and is a deep blow when it is one of your own. The opportunity to learn from that is something we’re taking very seriously.”
The Shulze family has kept quiet — understandably so — since announcing Sarah’s death the week after it occurred and acknowledging that she’d taken her own life. Parents Scott and Brigitte Shulze quickly announced the formation of the Sarah Shulze Foundation, established to support women’s rights, student-athletes and mental health both at UW and at home in California, but otherwise have kept out of the public eye as they mourned with Sarah’s two sisters.
Scott Shulze and I talked for a little more than 45 minutes Thursday night, spread over two phone calls, and what became clear is the family is pushing forward through the pain.
“We’re trying to do things that Sarah would appreciate,” he said, “and that’s part of her legacy.”
‘More work to do’
UW has a comprehensive mental health emergency plan and offers training to athletes, coaches and others on mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
The Shulze family, through Sarah’s foundation, has offered to fund suicide prevention training for all athletes and coaches through the QPR Institute. QPR stands for question, persuade and refer.
“We’re trying to say as a foundation, if resources are limited, we can fill that gap and do some things that could be helpful,” Scott Shulze said.
Athletic department officials say plans had been made to significantly increase the staff of in-house psychologists even before Sarah Shulze’s death. Doug Tiedt, UW’s senior associate athletic director for student services, said that the decision was made after an internal evaluation in 2021.
UW had two full-time psychologists on staff and has added four more this year, including two who will start Monday. That accounts for 3.25 full-time spots, with the four 2022 hires splitting time between the athletic department and University Health Services.
At a ratio of about 1 provider per 200 student athletes at UW, that’s about four times the standard set for counseling centers across the country, according to Dr. David Lacocque, the director of the clinical and sports psychology department at UW.
UW athletes can also be referred to a diverse group of six community providers if they’re seeking better identity fits or to Dr. Claudia Reardon, a board certified psychiatrist at UW who specializes in sports psychiatry.
Lacocque said just more than 180 UW athletes were seen in a clinical setting during the 2021-22 season. But he believes that number should increase this year as UW introduces initiatives at increasing mental health awareness and access.
“NCAA surveys show that this is the No. 1 health concern for our student-athletes,” Lacocque said. “So it gets me out of bed in the morning. There’s work to do.”
Coaching coaches, athletes
A major initiative during the 2022-23 season involves Lacocque and his staff getting out of the office more often and working to create “a health-promoting environment.”
Each of UW’s six staffers in the clinical and sports psychology department would be assigned multiple teams and make three visits per semester to each team for educational sessions on mental health: one with the coaching staff and two others with players that may or may not include coaches being present.
“It’s sitting down and talking and finding out what questions they have,” Lacocque said. “It’s making sure coaches know how to refer (athletes) to us and identify mental health signs. Give them some verbiage. I’ve found that coaches are really receptive and they want to participate if they’re given a little coaching.”
Lacocque put together a one-hour workshop with the goal of giving UW staffers a better understanding of how to spot — and respond — to athletes who might be dealing with mental health issues. He recently showed it to a group of UW academic advisors and that session led to four referrals. One advisor said they were on the edge of their seat during the workshop because they realized they’d possibly witnessed suicidal thinking while dealing with an athlete.
“In addition to having outstanding mental health care available, student-athletes also need to be able to count on every single coach and staff member within athletics to be a mental health ally,” Lacocque said. “This means being skillful at identifying student-athletes who might need mental health care, encouraging mental wellness and treatment-seeking when needed and working toward building an overall climate that supports resilience on a daily basis.”
The Shulze family is willing to continue to work with UW to improve mental health resources. They’ve spent a lot of time over the last four months talking to parents of other NCAA athletes who have died by suicide. They grieve together and try to figure out solutions to prevent it from happening again.
“It’s a tough topic. I do think the openness in talking about it at least is a starting place and it’s very helpful. But it’s not going away,” Scott Shulze said.
The Shulze family wants part of Sarah’s legacy to be that her death may save other lives.
“We’re trying and we’re going to keep trying,” Scott Shulze said. “I think there are opportunities here for some positive change.”