A Losing Battle?
I wasn't planning to write a blog about suicide. Then I read an article about Essie Soutter. A British Olympic snowboarder who took her life on her 18th birthday - a month before she was to compete in the Junior World Championships.
Her body was found in the woods. The cause of death hasn't been released, but according to her father, her suicide was the result of depression and pressure from the sport she excelled in. Her father, Tony Soutter, tweeted, "This cruel world took my soulmate and "Bessie" from me...".
That is partly true. However, ultimately, suicide is the decision of the person themselves. And we are often reluctant to criticize someone who commits an act like that. But the truth is we don't live in a vacuum. We are products of the world we inhabit. And there is enough blame to go around - starting with the world of win-at-any-cost sports.
“Unfortunately it all came about from missing a flight which then meant she didn't go training with the [Great Britain] squad,” Tony Soutter said. “She felt she'd let them down, felt she'd let me down, and just tragically it just takes one silly little thing like that to tip someone over the edge, because there's a lot of pressure on children.”
That may well be true. But to write off such a complex tragedy that way is too simple. Every human being experiences pressure in various forms on a daily basis. Most of us don't choose such a radical method of dealing with it. However, about 1 million people per year take their lives worldwide.
So why did this happen? Obviously, mental illness played a role. Tony Soutter, who raised his daughter on his own and knew her better than anyone else, claims there were no signs of problems. People who know him say he wasn't the typical sports dad, pushing his child to succeed. He said it was Ellie who put pressure on herself to be the best.
And as if that wasn't enough, money problems reared its ugly head. The fact is it is expensive to be an elite athlete. Parents often go into unimaginable debt to help their child realize his or her dreams. Ironically, most of them will not succeed, but there is something inside human beings that causes us to ignore that fact and believe we can defy the odds.
Ellie had to suspend her training due to a lack of funds, but eventually was able to continue. She was considered Britain's rising young star. But what made her feel that she wasn't allowed to make even one mistake? What made dealing with failure unthinkable and unacceptable to a young woman who was smart and talented and had so much to live for?
We may never know.
Is it that so much money is on the line for top athletes?
Is it that we are raising kids who we aren't teaching to be strong and learn from failure rather than being crushed by it?
Is it that parents and coaches push too hard?
Is it that they go into denial and don't see the cries for help?
Is it that we force athletes to define themselves by their achievements and not who they are as people?
Is it that young people struggle silently with depression and other forms of mental illness?
Yes, yes, yes, yes. yes and yes.
Ronda Rousey is one tough chick. She is a successful UFC fighter. She gets in a cage and beats people to a pulp for a living. In 2016, she admitted she contemplated suicide and that her father and grandfather took their own lives.
Swimmer, Michael Phelps, has 28 Olympic medals. He is now doing commercials urging people to get help with issues of depression after seriously considering suicide.
"I was very good at compartmentalizing things and stuffing things away that I didn't want to talk about, I didn't want to deal with, I didn't want to bring up -- I just never ever wanted to see those things," said Phelps.
Unfortunately, the real problem is... nobody wants to deal with it. Not the athletes. Not the people around them.
Depression is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In regard to sports, more female athletes suffer from mental illness and eating disorders than men, but more male athletes actually commit suicide. Either way, we all have work to do - parents, coaches, teachers, clergy, friends, family members... and yes, ourselves.
If you are interested, click on the link to see a list of athletes who have been lost to this problem:
And after you've seen the grim statistics, take a look at the people around you and yourself. Get help or get them help. There are so many tragedies in life that are unavoidable - illnesses, accidents, natural disasters, crime. But this is fixable if we're willing to have the difficult conversations and make the tough decisions.
It's very simple. We all have to be as strong and determined as we expect athletes to be. We have to be our own or someone else's champion. Because this is a battle we can't afford to lose.
And the next time we cry, it should be because of victory... not loss.