ST. LOUIS ( - Some student-athletes tell News 4 they considered drastic measures after their mental health suffered playing the sport they once loved.

They’re speaking out only to News 4.

“I was told that I needed to find somewhere else to play because I was mentally unfit, that were the words, mentally unfit,” said Noah Jacobsen.

Ever since he was a little boy Noah loved baseball.

“I told somebody that if I ever got hurt, they would have to carry me off the field, because I wasn't doing it on my own,” he said.

He got really good at it, playing for his home team in Potosi and even being honored as an amateur baseball Hall of Fame Rising Star. So, when he signed on with a scholarship at Southeast Missouri State University, it was his dream.

“I wanted to take it to the next level and play as long as I could, honestly," Noah said. 

But, it all quickly soured his freshman and sophomore years, in a program that he says harmed his mental health.

“I knew it was going to be a full-time job, which was not a problem and tougher, but at some point, enough is enough,” he said.

Plagued with injuries and illness, Noah says the coaching staff turned on him.

“He would call you a ‘p****,’ if you weren't playing or hurt,” Noah said. “He would call you, ‘don't be a b****, all the time,” Noah said, of head coach Andy Sawyers.

He remembers telling the coach that he’d be cleared to play after an injury in one week.

“That was on a Monday and he looks at me and said, ‘Well then don’t f'ing talk to me until Sunday,’” Noah said.

Noah says he didn't expect to be coddled, but the berating was constant.

“What would you say to someone who say this is just how it is?" asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager.

“I get that some people might say college sports isn’t for everybody. Well, no it isn’t, but talking like that isn’t right, you don't cuss at people and cuss at people and cuss at people to get your point across,” Noah said.

He says the culture on the team made him start to sink deeper into depression, severely affecting his game.

“I couldn't even think straight,” he said.

A sadly similar story came from Noah’s SEMO teammate, Braden Spawr, who says the push to perform pushed him over the edge.

“I was having panic attacks, anxiety attacks,” he said. “I was just tired of all of it and I went outside and just thought I was going to take my life."

“At some point, you just get tired of it and you can't take it anymore,” Noah said.

Noah says he didn’t know where to turn and claims that SEMO failed to provide resources.

“If you are on scholarship you are their property,” he said.

And when he tried speaking out to athletics staff, he says the word got back to the head coach.

“I was told I was mentally unfit to play at SEMO," Noah said. 

Both he and Braden eventually just quit the team all together.

“It’s all of a sudden taken away from me, for reasons I couldn't control,” Noah said.

Though still enrolled, he still struggles sometimes being at SEMO.

“It can escalate extremely quickly. And I have seen that first hand,” said Riley Nickols.

Nickols is a sport psychologist in Webster Groves who says Noah and Braden are far from alone.

“A lot of athletes I work with, are high functioning, driven, committed individuals, perfectionism is usually off the charts,” Nickols said.

But with that come specific mental health challenges. Especially in a world, Nickols says, where stats are broadcast online and subject to ridicule, an athletes’ very identity often wrapped up in their sport.

Big name athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps have opened up about their struggles, helping to partly destigmatize mental health issues in sports. But Nickols says progress for providing resources has been slow, especially for programs not flush with funding.

“Unfortunately, in my experience, the mental health support is woefully inadequate,” he said.

He says certain environments can become toxic, particularly when there is pressure to perform and win big.

“I think that toxic environments in sport, or on a team are normalized sometimes, and I think the culture within a sport or team is really important and I think that starts top down,” he said.

SEMO has seen great success in sports, winning 11 championships across athletics in just the last few years.

“If anyone were to allege that cost of winning is that the expense of student well-being, you would deny that?” asked Trager.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” said SEMO Director of Athletics Brady Barke.

Barke say it’s heartbreaking to hear Noah and Braden’s experiences.

“When you hear those types of things, you wonder where could we have been more helpful to keep them from being in a place like that?” he said.

He declined to talk about their specific allegations or about specific athletic programs, but he says in general, physical or verbal abuse directed at students is unacceptable and something they'd take very seriously.

“I am confident that none of our coaches, based upon reports we have had, and determined are subjected our students to those types of abuses,” Barke said.

If they receive allegations, he says, they will investigate.

“If we see there is a merit to those things, then student wellbeing is always going to be my top priority,” he said.

When it comes to mental health resources, though, he acknowledges, they rely on campus-wide counseling services.

Athletics has no dedicated-on-site staff, something they’ve discussed changing.

“I think we have a pretty good system in place, but I think to your earlier comment, there is always opportunities for us to assess the resources we provide,” he said.

But Braden, Noah and his family still say the school didn't do enough. They want to share experiences to hopefully help someone else.

"I don't want this to happen to another kid and it be a worst result and them ending their lives over something like this, because that could easily happen," said Noah. 

News 4 reached out to Coach Sawyers who told us he had no comment.

We have heard from parents of other players who support the coach, the program and SEMO in general. They declined to be interview on camera. Noah and Braden tell News 4 they really didn't want to bash anyone or cause any harm; they just wanted to let other people know that it's okay to speak out and it's okay to not be okay.

News 4 asked other Universities and Colleges what they offer.

The University of Missouri told us the following:

“We have a full time psychologist, licensed professional counselor, and two mental performance coaches that comprise our Mental Health and Performance Team in the department. We also have a multidisciplinary Integrated Healthcare Treatment Team (IHT) that is composed of a team physician, athletic trainer, psychologist, LPC, psychiatrist, and other athletic staff, as may be deemed appropriate, that meet weekly to evaluate, review, and discuss complex medical concerns of our student-athletes.”

The University of Illinois said:

"Over the last 10 years, we have grown our mental health services and providers from having access to one licensed mental health professional in the community, to having a multi-disciplinary team of licensed clinical social workers, psychiatrists and other health professionals who see student-athletes in our facilities to best support our student-athletes. We are grateful to the Big Ten and Commissioner Warren for their support and highlighting this important area in supporting our student-athletes via the Big Ten Mental Health Cabinet. As we look to best support our current and future student-athletes, I think all of us in college athletics are looking to grow our services and number of providers, while working on how best to influence the conversation around, and the prioritization of mental health and wellness across all of society, especially in the young people on our campus. All of us as humans, have to realize its okay not to be okay, to know its okay to reach out for support, how to support those around us, and how to be better humans, be it in interpersonal relationships or on social media platforms."

After this story was aired and published, Braden’s father contacted News 4 to say that he “spoke with the coaches during this period and they were more than supportive. Coach Sawyers and the athletic department showed understanding and compassion throughout this time and were instrumental in helping my son get the counseling he required.”

If you know someone who needs help, here are some resources:

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved


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