A hidden crisis

As teen suicides rock local sports communities, concerns grow over athletes’ mental health

A hidden crisis

As teen suicides rock local sports communities, concerns grow over athletes’ mental health
John Bruns and Heather Wendling pose beside a fountain that will be the future memorial for their daughter, London, in their backyard in Ridgefield, Wash. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

The sounds in her home can become unbearable some days. Heather Wendling will sometimes hear the footsteps of her sons walking in the dining room and think it’s her daughter. She will hear the front door creak when her husband comes home after work and wonder whether it’s her daughter. She will hear the phone ring and know it’s not her daughter, but perhaps another friend or volleyball parent calling to offer condolences or help.

When it all becomes too much, Wendling will sometimes head out to the backyard and sit on the swing set her daughter, London Bruns, used to play on as a little girl. “You can feel her energy there,” Wendling said, and when she is rocking back and forth, she wrestles with the questions of how London could have taken her own life at her home in Ridgefield, Wash., in the early morning hours of Sept. 21. She was 13 years old.

London had shown no signs of depression or suicidal thoughts in the weeks leading up to her death, Wendling said, but like so many teens during the coronavirus pandemic, her life had radically changed in the previous six months. She had shifted to online learning when her school district shut down in-person classes, and her social life had faded even more when her volleyball club canceled the season because of the pandemic.

“We’re living in unprecedented times. I never thought this would happen to my daughter. We fought so hard to give her a good life. We tried to do everything right,” Wendling said. “Their world has come to a screeching halt, a lot of them. They’re not in sports. They’re not going to school. They’re not hanging out with the friends. . . . We found out too late, and I don’t want other parents to find out too late.”

London Bruns (family photo)

Youth suicide was already at a record high before the pandemic — with increases among teens every year from 2007 to 2017, it is the second-leading cause of death among high-school-aged students — and some researchers fear the mental health consequences of coronavirus restrictions on not only schools but also sports could help elevate those numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey recently asking young adults whether they had thought about killing themselves in the past 30 days; 1 of 4 said they had.

For many teens who have been restricted from playing sports, the pandemic not only has stripped away the opportunity for exercise, competition and potential college scholarships but also has deprived those young athletes of the identity and social circles provided by sports. The mental health benefits that athletics can give students have been a driving force for thousands of parents who have protested the shutdown of sports in their communities across the country, with many often fearing the worst if their kids aren’t able to play.

Suicides among teen athletes have rocked several youth programs since the pandemic began in March, leaving parents and coaches scrambling — often from a distance — to help grieving kids in hopes of preventing more tragedies.

In the days after London’s death, volleyball teams from around the country rallied in support — youth players in states that were allowed to play inked her initials and her No. 15 on their hands during games. A coach from Michigan reached out to London’s coaches to say he had gone through a similar tragedy. A team from Oregon sent volleyballs signed with inspirational messages and slogans, including, “Stop the Stigma” and “Talk About it.”

“It’s important for us as adults, when working with these kids, to really be asking them questions and see what kind of support they need,” said Hillary DeVore, one of London’s coaches with Excel Northwest volleyball. “London’s story isn’t the first story that this has happened.”

Heather Wendling holds her daughter’s remains. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

‘The world was taken away from her’

A survey of high school athletes conducted by the University of Wisconsin this summer found that approximately 68 percent of the 3,243 teens polled have reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that typically require medical intervention — nearly 40 percent higher than past studies. The study, which also found that physical activity levels were 50 percent lower for kids than before the pandemic, was labeled “striking and concerning” by one researcher.

The lead researcher of the study at Wisconsin, Tim McGuine, said in an interview in August that “the greatest risk [to student-athletes] is not covid-19. It’s suicide and drug use.” The study caught the eye of the organization overseeing high school sports, the National Federation of State High School Associations, which already was dealing with an uptick in reports from state athletic directors about mental health concerns for teen athletes whose seasons were in flux.

The backyard playground of John Bruns and Heather Wendling at their home in Ridgefield, Wash. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

“We already knew going into this that we had increasing levels of depression and anxiety among young people . . . but now we have kids that don’t have school. They don’t have sports,” said Michael Koester, who leads the medical advisory committee for the NFHS. “Many of us are concerned with that. Obviously, there’s concerns about the virus, contracting it and passing it on to others. But this isn’t a zero-sum game.”

Across the country, suicides of teen athletes have been reported since the pandemic started. In Stockton, Calif., 15-year-old Jo’Vianni Smith, a budding track and softball prospect, took her own life in April. Her mother, Danielle Hunt, told local media that the state’s shutdown had been difficult on her daughter. “The world was taken away from her when she couldn’t do sports,” Hunt said. In Brunswick, Maine, the parents of a high school football player who took his own life this month cited the pandemic as a factor affecting their son’s mental health.

London Bruns attended View Ridge Middle School, which has held virtual classes during the pandemic. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

Concerns over mental health have driven protests over the shutdown of sports throughout the country since the beginning of the pandemic. In New Mexico, after the state government canceled fall sports in October, a protester picketing at a local library held up a sign that read: “Stop Suicide and Depression In Teens. Allow Sports.”

In North Dakota, as parents and athletes protested the postponement of the winter high school sports season in November, Grand Forks-based sports psychologist Erin Haugen continued to see a flood of referrals for teen athletes across the state who were struggling with mental health because of restrictions on sports.

“It’s certainly complicated in both directions because not playing can have mental health implications,” Haugen said. “But then also playing with that uncertainty or having one of their teammates get ill — or they’re getting ill — certainly has mental health implications as well. . . . It might be hard to find the best option from a mental health perspective.”

Teens who tie their identity and social circle to sports have been disrupted, which causes “higher risk of challenging psychological and emotional functions,” Haugen said, adding that the uncertainty around when sports will be played has functioned almost like an injury. But unlike a traditional injury that keeps an athlete from the field, a course for rehabilitation cannot be charted to navigate the pandemic.

The cancellation of the club volleyball season heightened London Bruns’s feelings of isolation. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

“I would characterize this as a crisis,” said Adela Roxas, a sports psychologist in Virginia Beach who works with middle school and high school athletes. “Not having the athletic participation is a loss. These losses have to be grieved. Grief is also a part of coping through the pandemic, grieving what we lost and what we’re not able to do in this situation. … There’s definitely been an increase in symptoms.”

A growing number of youth coaches are also seeking help to better understand how to detect signs of depression and anxiety in their athletes, according to David Martin, a Hall of Fame high school coach from Tennessee who works with the Jason Foundation, one of the country’s largest suicide prevention organizations. It is named after Jason Flatt, a former player under Martin who died by suicide in 1997.

“This pandemic has created an isolation. It decreased connection with those athletes, which obviously … is creating more mental health issues,” Martin said. “That decreased connection has placed an emphasis with coaches [and] administrators to more closely monitor the mental health of these young people. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

London Bruns, left, poses with her brothers Anthony, center, and Vince. (family photo)

‘She had been struggling’

Even after she suffered a season-ending ankle injury last year, London still attended every practice and game with her club volleyball team. She yearned to be around her teammates. With her foot in a protective boot, she brought a cushy camping chair and helped the coaches keep stats and retrieve balls.

“She had a great time with her volleyball team, and she loved her coach,” said her father, John Bruns, who practiced with London in the backyard near the swing set. “She seemed to really get into it. I’m 6-foot-6, so she got all of my height. She was tall and slender and would have made a heck of a good volleyball player over time.”

Her final day began with a request: London had asked her mother to prepare her favorite meal, fettuccine Alfredo.

They went shopping for the ingredients, first stopping at a Starbucks to get London’s favorite drink, an iced chai tea, and before they checked out at the grocery store, Wendling knew London needed to grab a gallon-size box of Goldfish crackers, like she always did. When London instead grabbed a little bag of the snack, telling her mom she didn’t need that many this time, Wendling thought nothing of it.

Before the drive home, London mentioned how she loved Halloween — “As if she was going to miss it,” Wendling said, and she continued to replay their conversations in her head in the days and weeks after London’s death, searching for clues that might help explain her daughter’s death.

“She just left that she was struggling. That’s all she left in her note,” Wendling said. “She just let us know that she loved us and that we didn’t do anything wrong. But she had been struggling and felt like it was her time.”

A week before London’s death, Wendling had asked London whether she had kept in touch with her volleyball teammates since the pandemic started; London had told her that they “had drifted apart,” Wendling said, adding that London had not told her best friend about her plan. Wendling believes isolation may have taken a mental toll on her daughter, just as it has on teens across the country over the past nine months as schools and sports have been leveled by shutdowns and uncertainty.

The Excel Northwest coaches reached out to their players in the days after London’s death, even though they had not been together in months. They worked to openly talk about feelings and helped them talk to other friends and family, and they held open gyms when restrictions were eased to get the girls out of the house. That wasn’t an option after shutdowns of indoor sports in Washington were imposed again last month.

“It is going to be really challenging for kids to work through this. … These kids just got thrown into it,” DeVore said. “Volleyball was the one thing that they had control over, and they got to go and make their own decisions on the court. We hope we can have some sort of safe season where the girls are practicing at least. But we also want to make sure that our communities stay safe.”

A note from London Bruns, 13, is seen in her dad's home office in Ridgefield, Washington. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

‘She was just a beautiful little light’

A few weeks after her daughter’s death, Wendling had heard one of London’s friends was suicidal. She had the girl and her parent over to the house. She told the girl how much pain she was in, that the teen needed to consider the agony in her voice. A couple of days later, Wendling spent more time with the girl so she wouldn’t feel so isolated.

“I’ve talked to other parents who have lost kids to suicide as well,” she said. “We’re part of a club nobody wants to be a part of.”

She is reminded daily of the lives her daughter touched, and she smiles about some of the last memories they shared together, including on a volleyball trip to Seattle when London was still injured but attended to support her teammates anyway. They went shopping and ate at restaurants together that weekend. Her volleyball club has started a scholarship and has talked about getting together to honor her memory when it is safe to do so, DeVore said.

A pair of sneakers and baby slippers that belonged to London Bruns. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)
London Bruns’s volleyball jersey is displayed with her My Little Pony toys at her parents’ home. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)
LEFT: A pair of sneakers and baby slippers that belonged to London Bruns. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post) RIGHT: London Bruns’s volleyball jersey is displayed with her My Little Pony toys at her parents’ home. (Liz Moughon for The Washington Post)

“I remember at the beginning of [last] season, her dad pulling us aside and just expressing how thankful he was that we were working with her. … You could tell how much she enjoyed being around this group of people,” DeVore said. “It was a beautiful thing to see.”

Bruns’s job as a manufacturing representative in the utility industry can be relentless — but every fall Saturday he would take London to a sports bar down the road in Ridgefield so they could spend father-daughter time together watching college football.

Since London’s death, Wendling and their sons have gone to watch several games with him instead, and at the first one, everyone in the bar raised a glass in London’s memory. As a family, they often share memories of London. They tell stories about her catching frogs on their five acres, about how talented of an artist she was, about how much she loved volleyball. In the living room of their home, they keep a trunk full of keepsakes — London’s favorite stuffed animal, a sweatshirt that still carries her scent, her volleyball uniform and knee pads.

“She was just a beautiful little light. … We loved each other. She loved everybody,” said Wendling, who has committed herself to making sure that love endures.

In the backyard, near the swing set and near where London practiced volleyball, Wendling plans to build a memorial flower garden with 13 white hydrangeas — one for each year her daughter was alive.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.

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