The University of Wisconsin’s athletics department has devoted its resources to supporting athletes struggling with mental health over the past half year, and is working to give others — teammates, coaches, support staff, etc. — the tools they need to help those. In trouble
New UW deputy athletic director Marcus Sedberry said mental health was talked about often in an interview with athletic director Chris McIntosh, who made it clear the topic was high on his priority list.
It was helpful to provide information about UW’s efforts around mental health, but one lingering issue made me uncomfortable: It was impossible to write this article without mentioning the tragedy of Sarah Schulze.
Schulze, a member of the women’s cross country and track and field teams, died by suicide in mid-April. This tragedy heightened the sense of urgency within the department to ensure athletes have the resources they need to deal with mental health struggles.
“The tragedy of Sarah hits home with us,” Sedberry said. “What it does is give us an opportunity to look in the mirror and learn from the situation, like other situations in the country to implement good practices. You don’t want it to be yours and it really hurts and if it’s yours, it’s a big blow. That learning opportunity is something we’re taking very seriously.”
Schulze’s family has remained silent – understandably – in the week since Sarah’s death, declaring her dead and admitting she took her own life. Parents Scott and Brigitte Schulz quickly announced the creation of the Sarah Schulz Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting women’s rights, at the UW and at home in California, but otherwise stayed out of the public eye as they mourned Sarah. Two sisters.
Scott Schulz and I spoke for more than 45 minutes Thursday night, spread over two phone calls, and what’s clear is that the family is moving forward with the illness.
“We’re trying to do things that Sarah appreciates, and that’s part of her legacy,” he said.
UW has a comprehensive mental health emergency plan and provides training for athletes, coaches and others on mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Through the Sarah Foundation, the Schulze family has provided funding for suicide prevention training for all athletes and coaches through the QPR Institute. QPR stands for inquiry, persuasion and reference.
“We’re trying to say as a foundation, if resources are limited, we can fill that gap and do things that can be useful,” Scott Schulz said.
Athletic department officials said even before Sarah Schultz’s death, plans were underway to significantly increase the staff of in-house psychologists. The decision was made after an internal review in 2021, said Doug Thiet, UW’s senior associate athletic director for student services.
The UW had two full-time psychologists on staff and added four more this year, including two starting Monday. That accounts for 3.25 full-time positions, with four 2022 hires splitting time between the athletic department and university health services.
According to Dr. David Lacock, director of the Department of Clinical and Sport Psychology at the UW, about 1 in 200 student-athletes at the UW is a provider, which is four times the standard for counseling nationwide.
UW athletes may be referred to a team of six different community service providers or to Dr. Claudia Reardon, a UW board-certified psychiatrist in sports psychiatry, if they fit the bill.
Lacock said more than 180 UW athletes will be seen clinically 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.
“The NCA’s research shows that this is the No. 1 health risk for student-athletes,” Lacock said. “So that gets me out of bed in the morning. There’s work to be done.
Coach coaches, athletes
A big initiative for the 2022-23 season will involve Lacock and his staff getting out of the office more often and working to create a “health-enhancing environment.”
Each of UW’s six staff members in the clinical and sports psychology departments is assigned to multiple teams and conducts educational sessions on mental health for each team three visits per semester: one with the coaching staff and two with players who may or may not include other coaches. Presence.
“It’s about sitting down and talking and finding out what questions there are,” LaCoque said. “It’s about making sure how coaches refer (athletes) to us and identify mental-health symptoms. Give some speech. I understand that coaches are receptive and want to participate if given a little coaching.
Lacock organized a one-hour workshop with the goal of giving UW staff a better understanding of how to identify and respond to athletes dealing with mental health issues. He recently presented to a group of academic advisors at UW and this session led to four referrals. One counselor said they were on edge during the workshop because they realized they were dealing with suicidal thoughts in their relationship with an athlete.
“In addition to receiving excellent mental health care, student-athletes should be able to count on every coach and athletic staff member in their athletics to be a mental-health partner,” said Lacock. “This means identifying student-athletes in need of mental health care, promoting mental health and seeking treatment when needed, and working to build a climate that supports resilience on a daily basis.”
The Schulze family is committed to continuing to work with the UW to improve mental-health resources. Over the past four months, he has spent a lot of time talking to the parents of NCAA athletes who have died by suicide. They grieve together and try to find solutions to prevent it from happening again.
“It’s a strong topic. At least the openness to talk about it is a starting point and I think it’s very helpful. But it won’t go away,” said Scott Schulze.
Part of Sarah’s legacy, the Schulze family wants her death to save other lives.
“We’re trying and we’re going to keep trying,” Scott Schulz said. “I think there are opportunities here for some positive change.”