The University of Wisconsin athletic department has over the past several months significantly bulked up its resources to support athletes struggling with mental health amid the mid-April death by suicide of varsity distance runner Sarah Shulze.
New UW deputy athletic director Marcus Sedberry told Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal that 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.
“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.”
As Polzin reported, 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 has established a foundation in Sarah's name and 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 told Polzin.
Athletic department officials say plans had been made to significantly increase the staff of in-house psychologists even before Sarah Shulze’s death, Polzin reported. Doug Tiedt, UW’s senior associate athletic director for student services, said that decision was made after an internal evaluation in 2021.
UW had two full-time psychologists on staff and this year added another four who will split time between the athletic department and University Health Services, Polzin reported. At a ratio of about one provider per 200 student-athletes, the UW's staffing is 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.
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, according to Polzin's report.
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 the presence of coaches.
UW athletes also can 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, Polzin reported. Lacocque said more than 180 UW athletes were seen in a clinical setting during the 2021-22 academic year, but he believes that number should increase this year as UW introduces initiatives aimed at increasing mental health awareness and access.
“NCAA surveys show that this is the No. 1 health concern for our student-athletes,” Lacocque told Polzin. “So it gets me out of bed in the morning. There’s work to do.”