On the anniversary of the death of former Oral Roberts guard Ashley Beatty, her family is choosing to spend the day on the basketball court.
A free camp for girls will be Friday at Anadarko High School, where Beatty starred alongside older sister Lakota and played on the Class 4A state championship team in 2012. The ORU staff will provide instruction.
“The camp is designed to commemorate and honor Ashley’s life,” Lakota Beatty said. “My family and I thought it would be a good way to give back to all of the family, friends and our community for all of the support we have received since Ashley left us.”
Ashley Beatty, a 20-year-old who played two seasons at ORU, including one with her sister, was found dead in her dorm room June 15, 2017. Her death was among at least 117 suicides in Tulsa County last year, according to data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office.
“As this year progressed, we have realized not only how our family has been affected but numerous other families who have gone or are going through the same pain that we have due to suicide,” Lakota Beatty said. “I think this camp is vital because it shows others that we won’t let this tragedy win. It is important that we show others that we must continue fighting every single day for life.”
Another area athlete, McLain basketball player Anthony Harris, took his life in March, days after concluding his high school career in the Class 4A state tournament. According to his obituary, the 18-year-old was active in his church, volunteered in the community and loved making people around him happy.
“He was almost like a son to me,” McLain principal John Williams told the Tulsa World in March. “When my son (John Jr.) came here, he embraced him like a brother. Every time I saw him, he hugged me.
“I remember seeing Anthony right after a game, and there he was putting his Whataburger shirt on, getting ready to go to work there. I respected that. He was always trying to be better.”
Last week’s shocking deaths of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain served as a reminder depression affects people from all walks of life and internal battles often are undetectable.
Sports generally reflect society, so athletes are no exception. Given how they’re typically viewed as physically strong, exposing emotional issues can be a greater challenge.
“In the athletic realm, you’re not supposed to show weakness,” ORU coach Misti Cussen said. “You’re not supposed to ever show any kind of potential disadvantage if you’re competitive by nature.”
Suicide is the third-leading cause of college athlete deaths, according to the NCAA. The explanation provided in a handbook on managing mental health: College is a time of transition when psychological disorders can develop or worsen, and these types of problems can be triggered or exacerbated by pressure related to participation in sports.
The effects of concussions can put football players more at risk for depression, but female athletes generally are more prone to conceal struggles, an NCAA study found in 2016.
“As an athlete, we are taught to push through, get tough, keep your head down and go to work — which isn’t a bad thing as an athlete, but as humans with specific emotional needs that need to be met, it is important that we learn to separate the two,” Lakota Beatty said. “I have always prided myself on being a competitor, so anything that resembles weakness or vulnerability is difficult for me to do.
“If there is a stigma that I hope to break or at least begin to shed light on, it is the one where asking for help is shameful or seen as weak. One of the most courageous things that anyone can ever do is reach out and seek help.”
At the University of Tulsa, athletes have access to individual meetings with psychologists through the Student Health, Athletic Performance and Education project to help learn effective coping and stress management, linking them to campus counseling when needed. About 10 percent of TU athletes request meetings or are referred by coaches.
“Initially, we knew that student-athletes were reluctant to seek mental health services, even though they are provided free on campus,” said Lisa Cromer, a licensed clinical psychologist and the lead faculty member on the project. “We had done research that showed there is stigma to seeking mental health help. It’s perceived as weakness.
“What we did with SHAPE is focus on working at the team level — bringing skills through team-based workshops initially to get buy-in. From that, individual appointments followed. We work on concentration, confidence, goal setting, time management, stress management, imagery and relaxation. If they needed counseling referrals, we would help them get set up with a therapist with counseling on campus.”
Oklahoma has a similar program called PROS: Psychological Resources for OU Student-Athletes, which offers mental health and psychology services including personal and performance enhancement counseling.
For Amelia Tanner, PROS helped her with the transition from professional cycling to college rowing. During her time on the OU team, she met with a counselor once a week to develop tools for working through any problems that came up in her sport, in the classroom and in her personal life.
“I worked with sports psychologists previously in my professional career, so transitioning (to college athletics) I knew I needed that resource and it was never stigmatized in my family (to seek help),” Tanner said. “For me, reaching out wasn’t that much of a hurdle, but I know for others it is.
“What PROS does is such a valuable resource for not only OU athletes who have struggled with depression or anxiety but also athletes who are just having trouble with their performance or just want to talk about life in general.”
Oklahoma State also recently hired a full-time psychologist for its athletic department. In addition to these types of professional resources, athletes can find solace in confiding in the rest of their team as part of their path to peace.
“It’s harder for athletes to admit that they need help, but at the same time, the one thing that’s an advantage for athletes is they’re usually surrounded by a tight-knit group of teammates and coaches that really is a safe environment to talk about it if they choose to do it,” Cussen said. “When there’s that courage of being able to talk about it, it’s actually an environment that’s really conducive to supporting them and helping them work through some things, too.”
Although Lakota Beatty has graduated from ORU, she has received constant support in the past year from her former coaches and teammates, including in the form of working Friday’s camp for girls going into fifth through 10th grades.
“Camps like these are generally pretty expensive, so for ORU to come and do a camp for free means the world to me,” Beatty said. “My coaches and teammates have been incredibly supportive and loving, and remaining close with them has been and will continue to be a key component of my healing process.”
Raised in a basketball-loving family — dad George was a prep standout and mom Michelle coached the girls when they were young — the Beatty sisters participated in similar Division I camps as kids, bolstering their aspirations to become college players. They planned to pay it forward by putting on camps themselves.
“After we were both done with basketball, we decided that we were going to travel around the country hosting free camps or giving instruction,” Lakota Beatty said. “I am extremely saddened that we won’t get to do that together as we planned, but I believe that this is the next best thing.”
Beatty isn’t ready to talk publicly about the tragic loss of her sister and best friend, but heartbreaking social-media posts reveal her anguish. On her left wrist is a tattoo that says “I love you sissy” scrawled in Ashley’s handwriting.
In addition to relying on her family and Christian faith, Beatty said she has sought help in the past year. Being open about her struggles has been tougher than anything she faced as an athlete.
“In hopes of encouraging anyone who is struggling or is afraid to take that first step, I have no shame in admitting that I have been and will continue to see a licensed counselor,” she said. “Having someone who is trained specifically for this purpose is a great resource that should be taken advantage of.”
With the number of suicides on the rise nationally, Beatty said she hopes education and awareness of mental-health issues also will increase.
“I would love to see mental health be prioritized just as (much as), say, cancer or diseases that are deemed immediately dangerous — because it is,” she said. “We are cognitive beings. Being spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy is directly contingent with our mental health.”