Illustration by Aubrey Palaganas

Emily Blumberg and Skylar Kreske

He was the perfect kid. The perfect student. The perfect athlete. So when Dylan Buckner, who was a Glenbrook North senior, died by suicide on Jan. 7, the tragedy was felt throughout the community.

Dylan’s real story, however, was far from what many people perceived it as.

The North varsity quarterback, with a 4.7 GPA and hopes of attending MIT, was facing an ongoing battle with depression behind the scenes, Dylan’s father, Chris Buckner explained.

“[Dylan did not fit the] stereotype that you would associate with somebody who you’d think was depressed or at risk of suicide,” Buckner said. “Prior to [his passing], he was a very high achiever, excellent grades, lots of honors courses, great athlete, had a lot of friends, always had a lot going on.”

During the numerous months that Dylan was struggling with depression, he felt football gave him a purpose. However, despite the positive influence that sports had on Dylan’s life, and the support he found in his football team, Chris said that like his son’s experience, it can be difficult for athletes to admit they are struggling with mental health issues.

“Dylan is the quarterback and the leader,” Chris said. “He’s supposed to have it all together, so I think [that] stereotype definitely impacted Dylan in the sense that whatever difficulty he was [having], telling his teammates wasn’t an option. He had to [appear] tough.”

Unfortunately, Dylan is not the only star athlete who has struggled with their mental health. In 2016, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, opened up about his battle with depression.

Since doing so, Phelps has used his platform to educate others about the importance of mental health awareness. He continues to remind athletes that mental health is just as important as physical health and he emphasizes the importance of seeking support.

“I’m thankful I opened up and talked about it,” Phelps said in an interview with Business Insider. “It’s been easier to share stories that aren’t really easy to talk about [because] those stories could impact other people’s lives and could help save their lives.”

Like Phelps, Chris has made it his mission to advocate for mental health awareness since Dylan’s death and reaffirmed one of Phelps’ sentiments regarding treating physical and mental health with the same severity.

“[Mental health] is a disease and it needs to be treated like cancer or a broken leg,” Chris said. “The person impacted didn’t do anything wrong, or do anything to get it, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, they are not the only one, they certainly won’t get better by hiding it from their friends and family and not taking medication,” Chris said.

South social worker David Hartman recognizes a troubling culture within the athletic community, a culture that makes asking for help with mental struggles more difficult than asking for help for an injury.

“I think that competition likely encourages us to ‘suck it up’ and work harder, no matter what the obstacle [is],” Hartman said. “That may discourage kids from talking about their mental health struggles. Sometimes athletes come down with ‘physical’ ailments in order to get time off to take off what is really a mental struggle.”

There are many factors that can contribute to a harmful culture in athletics. Sophomore Abby Kuliga, varsity volleyball player, opened up about having struggles along the way, noting that coaches can contribute to an athlete falling out of love with their sport.

“There was a point last year with my club coaches and everything with the pandemic where I really did want to quit,” Kuliga said. “I had a terrible coach. She always picked favorites and she would bench people based upon her likings of them. There was a lot of stress and pressure which sucked but I pushed through it.”

Whether it be toxic teammates or their overcommitment to the sport, sophomore athlete Drew Duffy said that the numerous stresses of athletics can become destructive to one’s mental health.

“It gets really tough physically when there are new concepts that you are not comfortable with [and] when you have those teammates that are bullies and do not want to work with you, Duffy said. “It can be tough on our mental health.”

For many athletes, despite the joy they derive from their sport, these negatives can also add to pre-existing mental health issues. Junior Casey Kraabel, former South baseball player, explained that while he loves the sport, he had to take a step back from baseball to prioritize his mental health.

“Baseball was my escape and the worst part was that I lost it,” Kraabel said. “After one of the morning practices, I kind of just snapped when I got home and I threw all my stuff away. I was just done. I cried to my mom and told her what happened. I hadn’t told her I was struggling with my mental health but [since] I did, I have been getting help.”

Kelly Dorn, South’s varsity girls’ volleyball coach, encourages athletes to not let their sport stand in the way of their well being, even if that requires them to step away from athletics for mental health purposes.

“I believe that [the] quality of [athletes’] lives is the most important thing,” Dorn said. “If a sport is hindering that, then the athlete might need to take a step back. I would refer [them] to our professional team and back whatever they suggest.”

There are varying signs that can indicate that an athlete is struggling with their mental health, including behavioral changes, Dorn said. She said that South coaches are equipped with numerous resources to support their athletes’ mental health, however, she acknowledged that some athletes need help outside of the building.

“Some things go past our training and need to be addressed at a different level,” Dorn said. “I have an open door policy and my players know that I am there to help off the court. We have done a great deal of mental training [varying] from visualization to meditation to goal setting and using key phrases to keep your ‘mind on track.’”

Sports can undoubtedly impact an athletes’ mental health, however, there are ways to seek help at school. Coach Dorn noted that sometimes it may be beneficial to receive help outside of school as well.

“I use different analogies when teaching [athletes] certain skills and strategies [to cope],” Hartman said. “I also talk to athletes about how they can talk about and share their struggles with their teachers and teammates. Then, hopefully, the student goes back to doing the things that they love.”

Chris Buckner got social media backlash after press interviews sharing Dylan’s story. Some commenters said on social media that ‘kids today are weak.’ However, Chris said Dylan was as tough as they come. Chris wants everyone to know there is no shame in seeking help, it does not make you weak because mental illness is just as real as any other disease or injury, Chris said.

“[Breaking the stigma is] helping people, kids in particular, understand that a lot of people are going through this and you don’t need to be embarrassed about it,” Chris said. “It is a real disease, you didn’t do anything wrong and the people who are impacted are not the only ones feeling that way. You didn’t do anything to deserve it.”