PHOTO BY KARLEE SELL

Out of Darkness, a Light: Behind Cailin Bracken's Letter to College Sports


Cailin Bracken was a sophomore at Ridgewood High School (N.J.) when she first read “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen,” a book that chronicled the life and death of former Penn track star Madison Holleran.

As Bracken sped through the 320-page story, she learned more about Holleran, the popular, energetic freshman who no one imagined could be capable of slipping into darkness. She also learned she shared similarities with Holleran.

Holleran called her father “Jimbo.” Bracken’s nickname for her father was “Timbo.” They were from neighboring towns in New Jersey. They both were high-functioning athletes who made their sports seem easy to the naked eye. Each appeared jubilant and confident but secretly struggled with the pressures of high-level athletics.

As soon as Bracken finished reading Holleran’s story, she offered a chilling admission to her father, Tim.

“Dad, I feel like that,” she said.

Bracken, who was headed to Vanderbilt to play lacrosse, had felt the same pressure. Although she had never contemplated ending her life, she identified with someone who had done so. “It is terrifying to look into the eyes of what could be your reality if your mental health consumes you,” she said.

Bracken raised flags about her mental health as early as 2018, when she was an aspiring college lacrosse player. She was more aware of what her mind was telling her than most teenagers who dealt with the same struggles.

Four years later, Bracken’s strong sense of self and her ability to articulate her feelings might be saving lives. After two years of struggling with her mental health — a battle that saw her leave campus and contemplate leaving the Vanderbilt lacrosse program — Bracken has come back stronger. More prepared, she said, for the challenges of being a college athlete.

“We need to approach [this issue] with compassion because winning and losing is not that important when it comes to losing people’s lives,” Bracken said. “We need to prioritize this. We have to structurally and behaviorally change the culture of college sports in a way that doesn’t take away from the magic that is college sports.”

Earlier this year, after Stanford women’s soccer goalie Katie Meyer died by suicide, Bracken broke her silence. In two hours of “manic writing,” Bracken put together a piece, titled “A Letter to College Sports,” that called upon the NCAA to take action to address the issue of mental health.

Morgan’s Message published Bracken’s letter on its blog, “The Mental Matchup.” USA Lacrosse Magazine also ran the piece. Days later, Bracken appeared on “Good Morning America” to speak about her piece and her struggles. She received thousands of messages from supporters and those looking for help themselves. They identified with Bracken the way she did with Holleran.

“People were telling me, ‘You put into words feelings that I didn’t even know I was having,’” Bracken said. “‘You put a language to it.’ That’s all I was trying to do — give athletes a way to have these conversations with their coaches or their parents or their teammates.”


“We need to approach [this issue] with compassion.”

— Cailin Bracken


IN HER 2,214-WORD LETTER, Bracken conveyed how her mental health declined almost as soon as she came to Vanderbilt in the fall of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. She shared why she left the team that year and ultimately why she decided to come back.

“It brought conversations between kids and their parents that people were so grateful for,” said Meghan Bracken, her mother. “As it blossomed, we recognized how important the conversation was.”

Bracken was no longer just a college athlete who had experienced mental health struggles. She was a college athlete who experienced mental health struggles and dared to speak out about them.

“It was the culmination of many years of suffering and then a year’s worth of really hard work and self-examination and tremendous growth,” Tim Bracken said. “She was manifesting the things she wanted in her life. The light was shining through the darkness in her wake.”

On the night of March 2, Bracken was in bed when her roommate, Megan Graziano, came into her room to share the sorrowful news about someone their Vanderbilt teammates Sammy and Jackie Nuchow used to play soccer with in Los Angeles.

“She died by suicide yesterday,” Graziano told Bracken. “Her name was Katie Meyer.”

Meyer was the star goalie and team captain at Stanford, leading the Cardinal to the NCAA women’s soccer championship in 2019. She competed with youth national teams. She died by suicide before a disciplinary hearing with the university.

Bracken was frustrated and afraid. “It’s so hard not to ask yourself, ‘What if somebody was having this conversation about me or my teammate?’” Bracken said.

Meyer was one of at least five NCAA athletes who died by suicide in a two-month span in the spring, calling national attention to the mounting mental health crisis in college sports and the unrealistic, perfectionist ideals they perpetuate.

PHOTOS BY KARLI SELL

Bracken reached for her computer and the words poured out of her.

I have looked at the pictures of these individuals who once shined with a bright smile, surrounded by loved ones, and I know that the reflection that looks back at me in the mirror every day doesn’t look all that different. …”

They were so successful, so full of life. How could they feel so lonely inside? …

Playing a sport in college feels like playing fruit ninja with a butter knife. There are watermelons and cantaloupes being flung at you from all different directions while you’re trying to defend yourself using one of those flimsy cafeteria knives that can’t even seem to spread room-temperature butter. …

It feels like the people in your life — namely, the adults — aren’t thinking about you at all. They’re thinking about the result that you create: the wins or the losses. …

We feel like we’re a perfectly curated glass ball, and if we come near a hard surface at the wrong angle, we’ll shatter.

The rawness of Bracken’s writing inspired others in the lacrosse community to share their stories. The Mental Matchup published similar works by Cal’s Lauren Hickman, Syracuse’s Kimber Hower and Florida’s Tori Bates, among others. Athletes Unlimited pro Lindsey Ronbeck spoke on a podcast about playing through eating and learning disorders in college.

Bracken started a movement.

“I wish it were in better circumstances,” she said, “but it was cool to see how many people were rallying around this message.”








PEGGY MARTIN PEERED UP FROM HER PHONE long enough to see the focus and solemn expressions on the faces of the Binghamton men’s lacrosse team. She stood on the sideline of the Bearcats’ practice field as the sun cast a shadow on the players, kneeling and standing in attention listening to Martin speak about her late son, Robert.

As part of Binghamton’s fall ball weekend Oct. 15-16 that included a partnership with Morgan’s Message and the Hidden Opponent, Martin had already addressed Cleveland State and Siena. But she knew the talk with Binghamton, the team with which Robert spent five years, would be much different.

Martin started reading excerpts from Robert’s journal he wrote around the time of his death. Some of the notes included observations from practice and the locker rooms, others a look into the depths of his depression.

I’m nervous that if I go to someone, they’re gonna say nothing is wrong with me and I’ve curated this all myself as BS. Is that not what poor mental health is though?...

I’m scared that if I go to therapy and I’m honest about my suicidal thoughts, I’ll get sent away and my life won’t go back to normal.

Robert Martin died by suicide April 1. He was open about his struggles and his distrust of a system that he felt would make him feel more alone. His mother did everything she could to help him while he was alive, but after his death, she’s pouring as much energy into stopping the next college athlete from taking his or her life.

“I get asked a lot, ‘How can you talk about it?’ I say, ‘How can you not? That’s the problem,’” she said.

The Bearcats haven’t forgotten their former teammate and friend. They continue to talk about what ailed him.

On Oct. 1, Binghamton participated in an Out of the Darkness community walk on the six-month anniversary of Martin’s death. The team raised more than $12,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“It’s not spoken about enough, especially with athletes,” said Max Verch, Martin’s former teammate and roommate. “This is not as much of a stigma as people once thought it was.”

Morgan’s Message, the organization founded in honor of late Duke women’s lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers, has partnered with college teams to host Morgan’s Message Games. Rodgers died by suicide in 2019.

When the U.S. women’s national team played a group of Athletes Unlimited pros in an exhibition at Stony Brook in June, players warmed up in t-shirts designed by USA Lacrosse in a collaboration with Morgan’s Message.

Beneath the sketch of a faceless lacrosse player read a simple, powerful message: Check on your teammates.

“We never know what the person to our left or right is going through,” said Lizzie Colson, a midfielder for the U.S. team. “This line reminds us to check in on the teammates around us because we’re friends, listeners and support systems as well as teammates.”




PHOTO BY KARLEE SELL


COLLEGE ATHLETES ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES AT RISK. Middle-aged adults represent 47.2 percent of all suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Middle-aged men, in particular, have a suicide rate of 36 per 100,000.

It’s that latter statistic that motivated Andy Kavovit, the brother of late Syracuse All-American Rob Kavovit, to launch the 15 for Life Foundation. Rob Kavovit died by suicide in 2021.

USA Lacrosse, 15 for Life and Morgan’s Message have partnered to offer mental health programming at the 2023 USA Lacrosse Convention in Baltimore. In addition, USA Lacrosse is hosting a medical symposium dedicated to mental health the same weekend.

“My number one goal is for the sport to be a leader in mental health awareness and for it to have the lowest suicide rate among coaches, players and officials of any sport,” Andy Kavovit said.

A new wave of awareness and advocacy is emerging. Those who have experienced mental health challenges, like Bracken, are speaking about their experiences to help others. Those who have lost loved ones, like Martin and Kavovit, are speaking out to make sure they never become just part of a somber statistic.

Standing in the sun and staring directly into the eyes of college lacrosse players who had lost a teammate to suicide just six months prior, Martin went back to Robert’s journal for one last message.

Maybe people will learn from my passing? Not sure what it’ll be. That’s for you guys to determine.


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