The University of Wisconsin Athletics Department over the past half year has significantly increased its resources to support athletes struggling with mental health and is making efforts to reach out to others – teammates, coaches, support staff, etc. – the tools they need to help them. In need.
UW’s new associate director of athletics, Marcus Sedberry, said mental health has come up frequently during his interviews with athletic director Chris McIntosh, who has made it clear the topic is high on his priority list.
The UW was helpful in providing information about its mental health efforts, but one lingering issue left me uneasy: It was impossible to write this piece without mentioning the Sarah Shulze tragedy.
Shulze, a member of the women’s track and field team, died by suicide in mid-April, a tragedy that raised the urgency within the department to make sure female athletes have what they need to deal with mental health struggles.
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“The tragedy with Sarah, it hits home with us,” Sedberry said. “What it does is it gives us an opportunity to look in the mirror and learn from that situation the same way we learn from other situations around the country to carry out best practices. You don’t want it to be one of yours and of course it hurts and it’s a deep blow when it’s yours. The opportunity to learn from this is something we are taking very seriously.”
The Shulze family has remained silent – understandably so – since announcing Sara’s death a week after it happened and admitting she had taken her own life. Parents Scott and Brigitte Shulze quickly announced the formation of the Sarah Shulze Foundation, designed to support women’s rights, student-athletes and mental health both at the UW and back home in California, but have otherwise stayed out of the public eye as they mourned. with Sarah. two sisters.
Scott Shulze and I spoke for just over 45 minutes Thursday night, spread over two calls, and what became clear is that the family is moving forward with 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’
The 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 Sara’s foundation, has provided funding for suicide prevention training for all athletes and coaches through the QPR Institute. QPR stands for question, convince and refer.
“We’re trying to say as a base, if resources are limited, we can fill that gap and do some things that might be helpful,” Scott Shulze said.
Athletic department officials say plans were in place to significantly increase the staff of internal psychologists even before Sarah Shulze’s death. Doug Tiedt, UW’s senior associate athletic director for student services, said the decision was made after an internal evaluation in 2021.
The UW had two full-time psychologists on staff and has added four more this year, including two who will start Monday. That amounts to 3.25 full-time positions, with the four 2022 hires splitting time between the athletics department and University Health Services.
According to Dr. David Lacocque, director of UW’s clinical and sport psychology department, 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.
UW athletes can also be referred to a different set of six community providers if they seek a better fit of identity or Dr. Claudia Reardon, a board-certified psychiatrist at the UW, 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 the UW introduces initiatives aimed at increasing mental health awareness and access.
“NCAA surveys show this is the No. 1 health concern for our student-athletes,” Lacocque said. “So it gets me out of bed in the morning. There is work to be done.”
Coaches, coaches, athletes
A big initiative during the 2022-23 season involves Lacocque and his staff getting out of the office more often and working to create “an environment that promotes health.”
Each of the six UW staff members in the clinical and sport psychology department will be assigned to multiple teams and will make three visits per semester to each team for mental health educational sessions: one with the coaching staff and two 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 the signs of mental health. Giving them a few words. I’ve found that coaches are really receptive and want to participate if they’re given a bit of training.”
Lacocque organized a one-hour workshop with the goal of giving UW staff a better understanding of how to spot — and respond to — athletes who may 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 counselor said they were on the edge of their seats during the workshop because they realized they might have witnessed suicidal ideation while dealing with an athlete.
“In addition to the availability of exceptional mental health care, student-athletes should also be able to count on every coach and staff member within athletics to be a mental health ally,” Lacocque said. “This means being adept at identifying student-athletes who may need mental health care, encouraging mental wellness and treatment-seeking when necessary, and working toward building an overall climate that supports resilience on a daily basis.”
The Shulze family is ready to continue working with the UW to improve mental health resources. They’ve spent a lot of time over the past four months talking to the parents of other NCAA athletes who have died by suicide. They grieve together and try to find solutions to prevent this from happening again.
“It is a difficult subject. I think opening up in talking about it is at least a starting place and is very helpful. But it won’t go away,” said Scott Shulze.
The Shulze family wants part of Sarah’s legacy to be that her death saved other lives.
“We’re trying and we’re going to keep trying,” Scott Shulze said. “I think there is opportunity here for some positive change.”