ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Mental health matters. Mental health is important. Mental health is health. 

Those are the messages that continue to spread after a recent rise in the number of suicides among female college athletes. 

Last month, Lauren Bernett, a softball player from James Madison University, died in an apparent suicide. 

Weeks prior, Sarah Shulze, a track runner from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took her own life. 

And in March, Katie Meyer, a softball player and team captain from Stanford University, died by suicide too. 

Their deaths are bringing attention to the added pressure and stress many athletes face, no matter their age, gender or sport. The news has also created an important conversation around student athletes’ mental health. 

“I think it’s really important to understand just the sheer number of hours that athletes dedicate to their time,” said Dr. Craig Cypher, a Sports Psychologist for the UR Medicine Fitness Science Program. “There’s a lot of hours and time getting put into the work that they’re doing overall, and so that can cause stress and strain that can be really kind of life challenging.” 

Dr. Cypher works closely with athletes across the Rochester area. While he focuses on their physical health, he has also prioritized talking about emotional and mental health too. 

“There are things that we can learn in terms of how do we understand how stress affects us in terms of mind and body, and then building really great skills, from breathing techniques, to mindfulness techniques, to muscle relaxation to visualization and imagery that can help us to manage stress,” Cypher said. 

Cypher works with URMC’s CHAMPP Program or the Center for Human Athleticism and Musculoskeletal Performance and Prevention. The program looks at the health and wellness of the entire athlete, not just the physical aspects. 

Dr. Mike Maloney is the founder of CHAMPP and URMC’s Chief of Sports Medicine. He says while stress can affect athletes at any time, they often see it build when athletes are in a transitional period or have had an injury. 

“Trying to understand if it’s realistic that they’re going to be able to return to the activity that they love and identify with, as well as their friends, that just becomes a tremendous amount of pressure sometimes, and identifying and talking about it is certainly very helpful,” Maloney said. 

Through CHAMP, Maloney works on engaging athletes before there’s an injury or issue they have to overcome on their own. He also makes sure athletes know they have a safe space to talk about how they’re feeling. 

“One of the important things I’ve learned over the last 24 years is to try to create an environment when I’m working with patients and their families, specifically, where they can have some open dialogue and understanding that sometimes it may feel taboo to talk about those things in the setting of their recovery. But knowing that, I’m definitely more forward in bringing the topic up,” Maloney said. 

When meeting with athletes and their families, Maloney makes sure they know how important it is they are advocating for themselves, while feeling comfortable. 

“It’s been pretty powerful. Sometimes you’ll have a parent in the corner who all of a sudden is breaking down and becoming very emotional because they’re like, ‘Hey, no one’s ever spoken to us about this,’” Maloney said. “It’s almost a sense of relief, like it is okay to talk about it. It is normal.”

As the conversation around mental health grows, Cypher adds it’s important athletes know it’s okay to take breaks and put their health first. 

“Taking planned breaks completely away from your sport is so important for you, your body physically, but also mentally” Cypher said. “To be able to kind of take that time to be a young person, go out there, have fun, be social, and know that your sport will be there.”

If you are an athlete and want to speak to someone about your mental health, URMC has a sports psychology program and behavioral health programs you can find here. 

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255.