Outward success doesn’t always indicate everything is well. If there’s one thing that the suicide of James Madison sophomore catcher Lauren Bernett proves it’s that, said Arizona sophomore Allie Skaggs.
Both young women were at the Women’s College World Series just under a year ago. Both young women were declared their conference’s player of the week on Monday. Yet, only one of them was able to talk about the role of mental health in college athletics on Friday.
“Personally it hurt me just because Lauren was a player of the week and then I was, too, and look at how different that experience...was for both of us,” Skaggs said. “And so that breaks my heart just because someone that is on a hot streak like that could be going through something that you can’t see.”
Trying to address those things that can’t be seen was high on the Arizona agenda this week. The team had a long week. It started in Tucson with a doubleheader against UTEP on April 19. On the 23rd, the team was in Salt Lake City for a three-game series against Utah. Then, it was on to play New Mexico State in a doubleheader on Wednesday, April 27. They were just starting to process their feelings on Friday.
“We’re actually meeting with our sports psychologist today after practice,” Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said. “I think we found out Tuesday night on the way to Las Cruces. We had the doubleheader, got home at two in the morning on Thursday, so we haven’t even had time to process, and I know a lot of people had feelings about it. I know I have feelings. about it. And it was just devastating and terrifying at the same time because I think sometimes it feels like it comes out of nowhere.”
Centerfielder Janelle Meoño knows how important those interactions are. She has been seeing Arizona Athletics’ sports psychologist, Dr. Mike Clark, to help get through the injury that kept her out of play for almost a month.
“What I really enjoy about (interactions with the sports psychologist) is just being able to talk to someone who has no idea what I do in my sport,” Meoño said. “Like really, he doesn’t know anything about me and softball, and it’s just a different perspective, somebody new, and I’m just able to open up everything I can and I feel comfortable.”
While most athletic departments offer similar services, tragedies still occur. Bernett was the third of a trio of young female athletes to take her own life in the past two months as Katie Meyer of Stanford’s soccer team and Sarah Shulze of Wisconsin’s track and cross country teams preceded her within the past several weeks.
It’s not a new issue, either. Longtime Arizona softball fans and members of the Arizona Athletics community went through the experience of losing a young person to suicide in 2010 when 16-year-old Bri Matthews took her life just months after committing to pitch for the Wildcats. While Lowe was working on the travel ball circuit at the time, it was something that affected those at all levels of the sport.
“I think in this sport, we are so much of a family, it doesn’t matter who you play for,” Lowe said. “When something happens to one of us, something happens to all of us and everybody takes it to heart and knows that it could happen. And I think that’s when it’s important to stop and to process. And I think that’s the biggest thing is we can’t just keep rolling on like nothing happened...My husband was someone who recruited Katie...and that hit us hard, and now to have it happen in the softball community.”
Mental health concerns exist in all parts of society, but Lowe believes that softball can do something to help prevent the next Bri Matthews or Lauren Bernett.
“I think that there are just things we have to address in college athletics and I think we have great resources and I trust in our resources,” Lowe said. “I trust the fact that our coaches are making sure that our athletes know that, and I think it’s starting to become a trend around college athletics. But I think we always have to look for ways to be better and that’s the biggest thing is we can’t just be satisfied with what it is. Obviously, there’s a problem, and we have to address it. I met with Dr. Clark today and we are talking about processing our feelings about it and how we can be better as a staff. So I think it’s just we’re lifelong learners in softball, but we have to be lifelong learners with how these athletes are feeling.”
Both Lowe and her players said that a lot of players tie their self-worth into their success on the softball field, especially if they feel they aren’t “pulling their weight.” From an athlete’s perspective, it’s important to know that they are valued beyond their contributions on the field.
“I think as long as you have people behind you that are saying, ‘Hey, no matter what you do on the field, I love you as a person before I love you as a player,’” Skaggs said. “That’s something that people have been reaching out to me for the past few days. It’s like, I don’t care, you could have zero hits for the rest of your career and I still love you because you’re Allie Skaggs. You’re not just good as the softball player (but as) the human. I think that is something that I will carry with me and as long as we can stick to that, our mental health will be alright.”
Before the doubleheader against Fresno State on April 30, the Wildcats remembered Bernett as both the player and the person. A moment of silence was held for the young woman before the game. Like many teams across the country, the Wildcats also painted Bernett’s number behind home plate on Mike Candrea Field at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium.