Former student-athlete sues Washington and Lee U following suicide attempt
- A former Washington and Lee University student-athlete is suing the university and one of its counselors for medical malpractice and negligence concerning events leading up to his attempted suicide in the fall of 2017. It seeks $12 million from each.
- In documents filed Tuesday in a Virginia circuit court, Kionte Burnette said he met with a counselor, Rallie Snowden, to whom he disclosed suicidal thoughts and his plan to take his own life. He said Snowden ended the conversation after "five to ten minutes," telling him to attend classes and football practice and then check himself into the Student Health Center for overnight observation.
- That evening, Burnette did not go to the center but instead attempted to take his own life, leading to significant injuries. The lawsuit alleges Snowden did not tell the center Burnette was having suicidal thoughts and instead made him promise not to harm himself, a decision that "deviated from the applicable standard of care and treatment" because the two didn't have a prior therapeutic relationship.
In a statement emailed to Education Dive, a university spokesperson said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit but that students' health and wellbeing are of the "utmost importance" to the university. "We continuously assess and strive to meet our students' complex and evolving needs in all areas of student life — including health and counseling services — and we are confident in the professionalism and compassion of our staff," she wrote.
The factors contributing to Burnette's attempted suicide aren't uncommon on college campuses. Burnette, a freshman and member of the university's football team, was sidelined from his sport due to a foot injury shortly after the school year began. His inability to play football compounded feelings of depression and anxiety that he was already experiencing, the lawsuit said.
About one-third of college students experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and while three in 10 of those students seek help, just one in 10 student athletes do, according to a University of Michigan professor's survey cited by USA Today. Black students, in particular, are less likely to seek help for mental health issues.
College athletics is "a unique and demanding culture," where mental health issues are minimized "because of the expectations of strength, stability and 'mental toughness' inherent in sports culture," write psychologists Chris Carr and Jamie Davidson in a blog post for the NCAA. Many athletic departments don't invest as heavily in mental health resources as they do in athletic training support, the pair add, instead referring students to the college's counseling center or other providers who may not understand the "stressors, motivations and dynamics" of student-athlete life.
Injury can spur or add to feelings of isolation, sadness, disengagement and even depression.
One current and one former student athlete at Oregon State University, who each lost teammates to suicide, are looking to increase mental health awareness within athletic departments through their #DamWorthIt campaign, with an aim to have seminars, guest speakers and suicide prevention training. And at the University of Texas, Austin, a $20 million gift will establish a Center for Student-Athlete Brain & Behavioral Health to serve student-athletes' mental health needs as well as research brain and behavioral health outcomes for athletes.
Intercollegiate athletics' high profile means student-athletes' suicides tend to get national attention. Yet a study of NCAA student-athletes found their suicide rate is lower than that of the general population. (Within the student-athlete community, men have a higher suicide rate than women, and black athletes have a higher rate than white athletes, according to a review of NCAA data.)
College is often a period of major transition for students who matriculate straight from high school, and a time when mental health issues such as depression tend to manifest, experts say. On-campus mental health resources are in high demand, meaning students may not be able to receive as much individualized attention as they need. That's led some to suggest colleges partner with hospitals and private practices to ensure needs are met.
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