Editor’s Note: This article contains links to suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the US National Suicide Crisis Helpline on 988.
“Take time to say hello to someone. Send a message if you feel like you haven’t spoken to someone in a while.”
That’s 22-year-old football star Sophia Smith’s advice for reducing stress and connecting with others. As he said on the NBC podcast My Favorite World Cup, the best thing you can do is treat people well.
Smith is the youngest Women’s National Football League MVP in history and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Player of the Year. Off the field, Smith committed suicide in March 2022.
Meyer’s death has drawn attention to the problem faced by student-athletes.
In a 2022 NCAA survey of 10,000 student athletes, more than a third of women said they were mentally exhausted almost every day. And up to 35% of all professional athletes experience mental health problems, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This figure is even higher among college athletes.
“Being an athlete and student athlete comes with a lot of stress, and I think the psychological side of that just needs to be talked about more,” Smith said.
Victoria Garrick Brown, a former Division I athlete and founder of The Hidden Opponent, a non-profit organization focused on student and athlete mental health, said striving to be perfect and successful can really have consequences.
“I have a lot of sympathy for college student athletes who have not yet turned pro and are concerned (about how they will be treated if people find out they are in therapy or taking antidepressants or struggling with things off the field or court,” Brown said.
It takes a lot of work to become one of the best players in the US Women’s Soccer League. Sophia Smith soccer player
A 2017 survey by the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that college athletes were three times less likely to seek help for mental health problems.
Dr. Robin Scholefield, associate director of sports and clinical psychology services at the University of Southern California, said you often don’t see many of the typical outward signs, so they can be harder to spot.
The same thing happened to Katie Meyer.
Meyer was a senior specialist in international relations and a minor in history. She was also the captain and goaltender of the Stanford women’s soccer team. She was found dead in a campus dorm. The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner later determined the cause of death to be “suicide”.
His death shocked the entire community in the Bay Area and across the country.
“On the outside, she was the happiest, most cheerful person, she had so much energy in her. You wouldn’t have guessed she was in pain,” Smith said. “So I think that’s what makes mental health scary: you don’t know what someone goes through.”
To meet the huge demand for better mental health support, educational institutions such as Western Illinois University and Rowan University are introducing new programs.
In April 2023, WIU received a grant to provide student-athlete training on suicide prevention. The UK has received a grant to study whether yoga can help student-athletes cope with post-pandemic stress.
“I don’t know if there’s a solution, but people know it’s okay and it’s okay to feel bad,” Smith said. “It happens, but it’s normal. Talk about it and ask for help. I know this is easier said than done, but you’ll be surprised to hear that other people go through the same thing.”
Here are five things to know about Sophia Smith, forward for the Portland Thorns and US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT).
Smith believes that exercising the mind is just as important as exercising the body.
She loves to meditate, uses healing crystals, and drinks matcha, but when her anxiety builds, she turns to her family, friends, and her boyfriend, Michael Wilson, an NFL player she met at Stanford, for support.
“When it’s all said and done (and) you’re on your deathbed, you won’t care about the physical things you have,” Smith said. “You will care about the relationships you have and the experiences you have with people you care about.”
When her family isn’t around and she just needs a quick cheer up, she turns to animals for emotional support.
“If I need a smile or a laugh or just a good mood, I just watch animal videos or go looking for animals because they are so innocent and pure and I think, ‘This is what I need right now,'” Smith said.
Animals are indeed a great resource. The American Heart Association claims that pets help manage anxiety and can help you stay active, which has been shown to improve your mental health. They also say that being with a pet can make you feel happier, not just being alone.
NBC Bay Area and Telemundo 48 reporter Abby Fernandez spoke about Smith’s influence when it comes to destigmatizing mental health in college athletics.
“Sofia knows what is happening in our country right now with this mental health crisis and she wants to use her platform,” Fernandez said. “She knows her platform is huge and she wants to use it to really encourage other people to talk about their mental health.”
Smith told Fernandez that he had struggled with depression in the past and still had anxiety to this day. Many of his peers also wrestle.
Smith encourages people to talk about what they’re going through because she says you never know if someone else can relate to you and help you.
Sophia Smith, the current MVP of the Women’s National Football League, has become a student-athlete mental health advocate after her best friend and Stanford teammate Kathy Meyer committed suicide.
Smith is now gearing up for the stress of competing on the world stage.
The northern Colorado native will play in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup starting on Wednesday, July 20 and running through August 20 in Australia and New Zealand.
32 countries will take part in the competition, making this the largest and most competitive tournament to date.
This is her first World Cup and she is expected to be a key player for the two-time defending champions.
To deal with the pressure, Smith said he tries to be present.
“If you look too far ahead, it causes stress,” Smith said. “If you think about the past, what’s the point? The past is the past. You can celebrate what you’ve done, but all you can do is be present and be happy with where you are, but you always want to get better.”
Listen to the full conversation with USWNT phenom Sophia Smith on the NBC/TELEMUNDO podcast “My Favorite World Cup” here.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call 988 to contact the Suicide and Crisis Help Line. You can also call the network formerly known as the National Suicide Helpline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for more resources.