Sports stars and suicide: Is there a connection? Grayson Murray was only most recent

The golf world at large — and Palm Beach County in particular — was shocked and saddened by the Memorial Day weekend death by suicide of two-time PGA Tour champ and Palm Beach Gardens resident Grayson Murray at age 30.

Murray had long been open about his past struggles with alcoholism and mental health challenges.

And while we’re still learning details about Murray’s death, we’re also reminded of other recent suicides that shocked the South Florida sports world.

In March during the first week of the Miami Open tennis tournament, the former fiancé of No. 2 female singles player Aryna Sabalenka — Konstantin Koltsov — died by suicide in a luxury Bal Harbour condo.

Two-time PGA Tour champ Grayson Murray, seen here walking the course during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club, died by suicide over Memorial Day weekend in his Palm Beach Gardens home.
Two-time PGA Tour champ Grayson Murray, seen here walking the course during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club, died by suicide over Memorial Day weekend in his Palm Beach Gardens home.

Koltsov, 42 and a former NHL player, had been in town to support Sabalenka at the event and after his death Sabalenka took to social media to say “my heart is broken.”

During the Miami Open tennis tournament in April, the former fiancée of world No. 2 female singles player Aryna Sabalenka — 42-year-old former NHL player Konstantin Koltsov — died by suicide in a nearby luxury condo. Koltsov had been in town to support Sabalenka at the event.
During the Miami Open tennis tournament in April, the former fiancée of world No. 2 female singles player Aryna Sabalenka — 42-year-old former NHL player Konstantin Koltsov — died by suicide in a nearby luxury condo. Koltsov had been in town to support Sabalenka at the event.

Another prominent sports figure — former Miami Heat coach and current TNT color commentator Stan Van Gundy — revealed last month in a South Beach Sessions podcast with Dan Le Batard that his wife Kim’s death in August had been by suicide.

Kim, 61, and Stan, 64, met in 1984, had been married 35 years, and had four children together. At the time of her death, the family’s statement described it as “unexpected.”

Former Miami Heat coach and current TNT color commentator Stan Van Gundy revealed last month in a South Beach Sessions podcast with Dan Le Batard that his wife Kim’s death in August had been by suicide. The couple had been married 35 years and had four children together.
Former Miami Heat coach and current TNT color commentator Stan Van Gundy revealed last month in a South Beach Sessions podcast with Dan Le Batard that his wife Kim’s death in August had been by suicide. The couple had been married 35 years and had four children together.

"She took her own life, Dan," Van Gundy said. "I can't imagine that I'll ever get over that ... It was devastating. I knew she was going through a tough time, but I still never envisioned that happening. Even now, it's been eight months, and I struggle to come to grips with the fact that I'm never going to see her again."

When it comes to mental health issues, the sports world largely mirrors society. But some experts are sounding the alarm bell about disturbing trends in young elite athletes.

Sports and suicide: Is there a connection?

Statistics show for the last two decades suicide has been on the rise in the U.S.

The CDC says that between 2000 and 2021, the suicide rate increased 35%.

But a 20-year research report released in April shows that suicide rates between 2002 and 2022 have actually doubled in a specific demographic: collegiate athletes.

Even before the report was released, the collegiate sports world knew something was amiss. Between March and April of 2022, a spate of deaths by suicide claimed the lives of Sarah Shulze, Katie Meyer, Jayden Hill, Robert Martin and Lauren Bernett, sparking nationwide calls for the NCAA to put more resources into preventing these kinds of tragedies.

But this new report puts hard data to our anecdotal impressions.

The study was published in British Journal of Sports Medicine and conducted by the University of Washington.

“We found that the annual mortality rate in this population has been pretty similar over the last 20 years, but suicide death is accounting for a greater portion of the total,” said Bridget Whelan, the study’s lead author and a research scientist in family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Whelan and her team studied the deaths of athletes who competed in a sport at the Division I, II or III levels. The deaths were labeled as either accident, murder, suicide, unintentional drug/alcohol overdose or caused by a medical reason.

There were some 1,100 deaths of student-athletes over this period and among the most notable findings were the following:

  • 11.5% of them died by suicide.

  • The average age of the suicide victims was 20.

  • Men accounted for 77% of the suicides.

  • Suicide deaths doubled from the first 10 years of the study (7.5%) to the second 10 years (more than 15%).

  • Every other cause of death among student-athletes declined.

Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death in collegiate athletes.

The report read in part “athletes are generally thought of as one of the healthiest populations in our society, yet the pressures of school, internal and external performance expectations, time demands, injury, athletic identity, and physical fatigue can lead to depression, mental health problems, and suicide.”

Whelan noted that the findings surprised the researchers because elite athletes have direct access to a support system (coaches, doctors, trainers, sports psychologists, teammates, etc.) that other students don’t necessarily have.

She also noted that cross-country runners and track and field athletes “emerged as the most vulnerable student-athletes" because “the individual nature of those competitions, in contrast with more overtly team-oriented sports such as football and soccer” meant they internalized defeat and poor performance more than the team-sport athletes did.

What makes athletes more vulnerable

Both mental-health experts and elite competitors themselves have long known that part of what makes them elite athletes can also be their mental-health undoing when outside the competitive arena.

U.S. Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps produced and narrated "The Weight of Gold," an HBO documentary that explores the mental health struggles of Olympians, both pre- and post-Games. The documentary details how, in the last decade, five Olympic-level athletes have died by suicide and another's death was caused by a fatal combination of alcohol and prescription medication.

Decorated Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps has spoken for years about his mental-health challenges and is now a mental-health advocate. In 2020, he produced a documentary for HBO called The Weight of Gold about depression, suicidal ideation and deaths by suicide of numerous Olympic athletes.

Last year, Canadian House of Sport psychiatrist Dr. Julie Jardine discussed some of what she’s found that make athletes especially vulnerable to depression and/or suicide.

She said athletes’ personalities often “include the narrow focus that is generally required to reach the highest levels in a sport, one that often starts during childhood and continues through adolescence and into adulthood. When most of the athlete’s time, focus and energy goes into a singular pursuit, it can potentially interfere with some aspects of their psychological development.”

Jardine also noted that athletes often possess “personality characteristics that can increase their risk of suicidal ideation ... including obsessiveness and perfectionism with intolerance of failure.”

High-level athletes also must endure intense scrutiny and, in certain sports, may be at risk of suffering the potential personality-altering effects of concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head.

In 2018, the high-profile death by suicide of Washington State University starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski put a focus on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in collegiate athletes as his autopsy showed that, at just age 21, he'd already developed evidence of the brain disease.

To honor their son, after Hilinski's death, his parents created the Hilinski's Hope foundation, whose aim is to raise awareness of, and advocacy for, mental health issues.

Intense focus on their bodies and physical performance may also give elite athletes a predisposition for developing eating disorders and/or body-dysmorphia issues ― both or either of which can increase suicide risk.

Jardine also listed several important — and potentially “complicating” — factors to consider when trying to prevent death by suicide in elite athletes:

  • The athlete does not want to acknowledge weakness or share their struggles.

  • The athlete’s concern about how their disclosure will be managed.

  • Athlete wants to avoid stigma.

  • The period of time between decision to commit suicide and carrying out suicide can be short.

  • Sometimes people intending to die by suicide may be relieved and appear happier and more relaxed in the period just before they take their own life.

Will new financial model increase the risk?

The combination of name/image/likeness (NIL) payments for athletes and recent court rulings increasing the likelihood of collegiate athletes eventually being paid by their institutions means that the NCAA’s financial model for intercollegiate athletics is transforming in real time.

Whether these payments from colleges and universities will include all athletes or only those in revenue-producing sports is still to be determined.

However it all shakes out, NCAA athletes will eventually be aboveboard professionals rather than the black-market ones they’ve been for time immemorial.

And with that deserved remuneration will, of course, come increased pressure.

It’s hard to imagine how the NCAA’s new financial landscape will do anything to reverse the disturbing trend in NCAA athlete suicides.

You are not alone. Help is available for people experiencing domestic violence or suicidal thoughts. Call the Palm Beach County Victim Services 24-hour helpline at 561-833-7273, or the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Suicide rate among NCAA athletes has more than doubled.

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