Sophia Smith, the reigning MVP of the U.S. national soccer team, has become an advocate for the mental health of student-athletes after losing her best friend and Stanford teammate, Katie Meyer, to suicide.
Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and suicidal ideation. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Crisis and Suicide Helpline in the United States at 988.
“Take the time to say hello to someone. Text if you feel like you haven’t communicated with someone in a long time.”
That’s the advice 22-year-old U.S. national soccer star Sophia Smith has for reducing stress and connecting with others. As he said on NBC’s “My Favorite World Cup” podcast, the best thing you can do is be nice to people.
Smith is the youngest Women’s National Soccer League MVP in history and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Player of the Year. Off the field, Smith suffered the devastating loss of her best friend and former Stanford teammate, Katie Meyer, to suicide in March 2022.
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 problems with their mental health, according to data from the American College of Sports Medicine. That rate is even higher among college athletes.
“There’s a lot of stress that comes with being an athlete and a student-athlete and I think you just need to talk more about the mental side of that,” Smith said.
Victoria Garrick Browne, a former Division I athlete and founder of the nonprofit mental health organization for student-athletes, The Hidden Opponent, said the pressure to be perfect and successful can take its toll.
“I feel a lot of empathy for student-athletes at the college level who haven’t yet turned professional and are worried [about] what they would be viewed if people knew they’re in therapy or taking antidepressants, or they’re struggling with things off the field or the court,” Browne said.
A 2017 survey from the University of Michigan School of Public Health showed that college athletes were three times less likely to seek help for mental health issues.
Dr. Robin Scholefield, associate director of clinical and sports psychology services at the University of Southern California, said you often won’t see many typical outward signs, so it can be harder to spot.
The same thing happened with Katie Meyer.
Meyer was a senior majoring in international relations and majoring in history. She was also team captain and goalkeeper for the Stanford women’s soccer team. She was found dead in a campus residence hall. The Santa Clara County medical examiner later determined that the cause of his death was “self-inflicted.”
His death shocked the entire community in the Bay Area and across the country.
“From the outside, she was the happiest, the most full person in life, she had so much energy. You wouldn’t know he was suffering,” Smith said. “So I think that’s what makes mental health scary — you don’t know what someone is going through.”
To address the huge demand for better mental health support, educational institutions such as Western Illinois University and Rowan University are implementing new programs.
In April 2023, WIU received a grant for student-athlete suicide prevention training. The UK received a grant to research whether yoga could help student-athletes with post-pandemic stress.
“I don’t know if there’s a solution, but people know it’s okay and it’s normal to feel bad,” Smith said. “It happens, but it’s it, it’s okay. Talk about it and ask for help. I know that’s easier said than done, but you’d be surprised to learn that other people are going through the same thing.”
Smith believes it is as important to exercise the mind as the body.
She enjoys meditating, uses healing crystals, and drinks matcha, but when anxiety mounts, she turns to her family, friends, and boyfriend Michael Wilson, an NFL player she met at Stanford, for support.
“When all is said and done [and] you’re lying on your deathbed, you won’t care about the physical things you have,” Smith said. “You’re going to care about the relationships you’ve made and the experiences you’ve had with the people you care about.”
When the family is not around and she needs a quick stimulus, she turns to animals for emotional support.
“If I need a smile or a laugh or just to feel good, I just watch animal videos or go get an animal because they’re so innocent and pure and it’s like, ‘This is what I need right now,'” Smith said.
Animals are, in fact, a great resource. The American Heart Association says pets help manage anxiety and can help you stay active, which has been shown to improve your mental health. They also say that bonding with a pet can help you feel happier and not so alone.
NBC Bay Area and Telemundo 48 reporter Abbey Fernandez spoke about the impact Smith has when it comes to destigmatizing mental health in college athletics.
“Sophia knows what is currently going on in our country with this mental health crisis and wants to use her platform,” Fernandez said. “She knows her platform is huge and she wants to use it to encourage other people to talk about their mental health.”
It’s okay not to be okay.
Smith told Fernandez that he has struggled with depression in the past and, to this day, has anxiety. Many of his peers are also struggling.
Smith encourages people to talk about what they’re going through because he says you never know if someone else can relate to you and help you.
Smith is now preparing for the stress of competing on the world stage.
The Northern Colorado native will play in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which begins Wednesday, July 20, and continues through Aug. 20 in Australia and New Zealand.
32 nations will compete, making it the largest and most competitive tournament to date.
It’s their first World Cup and is expected to be a key piece 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’s stressful,” Smith said. “If you’re thinking about the past, it’s like, 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 improve.”