Suicide is Second-Leading Cause of Death Among College Athletes

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Researchers examined the suicide rates of NCAA student-athletes from 2002 to 2022.

Suicide is among the leading causes of death for National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes, with suicide rates more than doubling over a 20-year study period, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.1

During the second 10-year period of the study, suicide rates jumped from 7.6% to 15.3%, making suicide the second-leading cause of death for NCAA athletes, behind accidents. This jump in suicide cases reinforces the need for better mental health resources for student-athletes, despite a recent increase in focus on the topic.1

“College athletes are in a unique environment where it's a very intense culture and there often hasn’t historically been this priority on them as people,” said Clare Kehoe, MSN, RN, cofounder of Morgan’s Message, an advocacy group for mental health in student athletics.2 “They have control over the outcome of games in ways that I can imagine could create an astonishing amount of pressure for some students.”

Key Takeaways

  • Using NCAA data, researchers examined the suicide rates of student-athletes from 2002 to 2022.
  • Emerging as the second-leading cause of death among college athletes, suicide more than doubled during the 20-year study period.

Expanding the scope of suicide rates from student-athletes to the global population, it is the fourth-leading cause of death among individuals aged 15 to 29 years; more than 700,000 suicides are reported every year.3 Although mental health has been a growing issue among the public, researchers have found it to be an even bigger issue within the student-athlete population.

Analyzing student-athlete deaths from 2002 to 2022, researchers addressed the leading causes of death—stratified by age, sex, collegiate division, and sport—as well as the change in suicide rates from 20 years of NCAA data.

women college athletes

During the second 10-year period of the study, suicide rates jumped from 7.6% to 15.3%. | image credits: kudosstudio / stock.adobe.com

Student-Athlete Suicide Rates from 2002 to 2022

From 2002 to 2022, the NCAA reported a total of 1102 deaths among student-athletes across the US. Of those 1102 deaths, 128 (11.6%) were from suicide, 98 of which were men and 30 were women.1

Track and field athletes led all collegiate sports with 16% of suicides, while reports of suicide in Division I (45%) and Division II (30%) athletes were significantly higher compared with Division III athletes (25%). When analyzing suicide cases by age, 33 (26%) were student-athletes of aged 20 years, which is notably toward the middle of a normal 4-year college career.1

To get a more complete scope of suicide instances in college athletes, researchers analyzed the days of the week and months of the year when cases were the highest. They found that Monday (n=25; 20%) and Tuesday (n=26; 20%) saw the highest number of suicides and October was the leading month with over 15 suicides (11.7%). Researchers also found suicides to be significantly lower in the summer months of June through August (mean, 6.7), compared with non-summer months (mean, 12).1

Regarding the overall change in suicide rates over the 20-year period, cases jumped by 7.7%, going from the third-leading cause of death to the second among student-athletes.1

Researchers further analyzed the rate of change in suicide among men and women college athletes. As non-suicide deaths decreased for both men and women over the 20-year period, suicide was at its highest for both sexes by 2022; however, rates changed at a more significant rate for men than they did for women.1

READ MORE: Mental Health Awareness Month: Resources Roundup

Addressing the Importance of Student-Athletes’ Mental Health

In the US, suicide is now the fourth-leading cause of death among all individuals aged 18 to 24 years.1 As cases increase globally and advocacy groups continue to push mental health initiatives across the world, the NCAA has experienced an even greater issue among its student-athletes.

“In the last decade, the NCAA has placed increasing emphasis on the mental health and well-being of student-athletes, publishing a consensus document on mental health best practices noting that mental health concerns among student-athletes are similar to their non-athlete peers,” wrote the authors of the study.1

Student-athletes, however, live different lives than their non-athlete counterparts: While simultaneously focusing on academics and athletics, these individuals experience a 2-fold amount of stress and pressure to succeed, increasing the risk of mental health complications in this group of young adults.

With new name, image, and likeness rule changes within the NCAA, athletes are now able to profit from brand ambassador deals, something that was previously prohibited in the NCAA. Although this recent 2021 change establishes an avenue for elite NCAA athletes to leave college in better financial situations, researchers claim it could exacerbate the pressure these athletes experience.2

Although the NCAA has exerted efforts to improve mental health resources for its athletes, it’s ultimately up to each college’s respective athletic department to push mental health initiatives for its athletes. Researchers are even looking to government reform that will help improve resources and education.

“As each university takes steps toward suicide prevention, Harkavy-Friedman points to a need for unified action on a national level. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, signed into law in 2022, was one of the first national actions. However, she said many states still need to develop a strategy for funding and implementing 988,” wrote Anna Bock for JAMA Network.2

And finally, researchers concluded their study by identifying the next steps necessary for addressing the recent increase in collegiate athlete suicide rates.

“Additional mental health resources including efforts to raise awareness, screening for early risk identification, training coaches and support staff on how to identify athletes at risk, and providing access to mental health providers trained in sport psychology are examples of ways to help prevent suicide in this population,” they concluded.1

READ MORE: Mental and Behavioral Health Resource Center

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References
1. Whelan BM, Kliethermes SA, Schloredt KA, et al. Suicide in National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes: a 20-year analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2024;58:531-537.
2. Bock A. College athlete deaths by suicide have doubled, and researchers want to know why. JAMA. Published online May 10, 2024. doi:10.1001/jama.2024.7895
3. Suicide. World Health Organization. August 28, 2023. Accessed May 13, 2024. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide
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