Students, faculty grieve loss of JMU catcher Lauren Bernett, push for reform on mental health in athletics


Courtesy of JMU Athletics

James Madison University sophomore catcher Lauren Bernett died Tuesday, April 26. The investigation is still ongoing and an official cause of death has yet to be released.

Maya Waid, Editor-in-Chief

‘You really never know what someone is going through.’ 

James Madison University (JMU) alumni and former softball pitcher Oddici Alexander tweeted these words after hearing news of the passing of her teammate and friend, Lauren Bernett.

The JMU and Harrisonburg community got word of a local death on Tuesday, April 26, JMU sophomore catcher Lauren Bernett. Bernett’s death came only two days after she was named the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) player of the week. A press statement was released from JMU President Jonathan Alger and Athletic Director Jeff Bourne addressing the JMU community following the news of Bernett’s death. 

Although the investigation into Bernett’s death is still active, many athletes and individuals at both the high school and college level have been deeply affected by her passing. Sophomore varsity pitcher Ashlyn Smiley is one of many student athletes at the high school who has been greatly impacted by the news of Bernett’s death. 

“I have had a lot of family [members] go to JMU. My cousin, Kate Gordon, just graduated last year from JMU, she played [softball] there for [all] four years. I know [Kate] was [devastated] when we found out,” Smiley said. “I  don’t even know how to explain it, it has been a shock, hearing from everyone. Tuesday morning, I remember texting [my old coach who is at JMU] and saying, ‘there is a rumor, please say it is not true.’ He texted me back confirming it and a few hours later they released it.”

Most people recognize Bernett as the standout catcher who helped lead JMU softball to the semifinals of the Women’s College World Series last year, which made national news headlines for several weeks. 

“The star catcher that I watched play on that field … [just] Monday she was just named the CAA player of the week,” Smiley said. “I think the question people should really think about is ‘what was behind that?’”

As an athlete herself, Smiley wants other people to focus more on Bernett’s impact off the field, rather than just her softball accolades. 

“People see the star player on the field. The first thing they said was ‘she was so good at softball’. [While] that is great and all, what about the student? What about the person? What about the human outside of the field? Everybody said that Lauren was there for them and everything. She was always the person who lifted people up,” Smiley said. 

There is absolutely no reason for us to lose as many young, talented athletes as we are. We all just need to do better, be better and make ourselves more available to people. [We need to] give them more grace.

— Peyton Clark

Across the athletics community, student-athletes are feeling the growing pressure at the collegiate level to perform well in both school and sports. Smiley believes that younger athletes are at an advantage when it comes to not fully grasping the gravity of the situation. 

“It is a blessing and a curse that the younger kids don’t understand [what is happening]. Having my father coach me throughout my life and my grandfather coaching at Bridgewater, I know the pressure. I couldn’t imagine going to play at a Division I school,” Smiley said.

For Smiley, her personal experiences with mental health issues have allowed her to understand the difficulties athletes experience when switching their mindset and reach out for help. 

“It is hard to transition from the mindset of a ‘strong athlete’ to being [open and vulnerable] to talk about mental health. As someone who has that experience, it is really hard. Making sure that [mental health] is more of a priority, especially with Division 1 sports. [It is important to] dig deeper into each person, each player and make sure that the coaches know them on a personal level. It is not just ‘I recruited you, come play here and get us some rings, get us some trophies on the shelf’,” Smiley said. 

Athletic training student Peyton Clark has worked with Harrisonburg High School athletes over the course of the second semester. As a second year graduate student in the Athletic Training Program at JMU, Clark has been a part of the JMU community who is grieving. 

“I think the last few months have been incredibly difficult for everyone. I am a second year graduate student at JMU in the athletic training program, so I work very closely with student-athletes. Everything that has been going on hits very close to home. It is just really really sad and I think sometimes it is hard to process because you just don’t always know what is going on with people,” Clark said. “There is absolutely no reason for us to lose as many young, talented athletes as we are. We all just need to do better, be better and make ourselves more available to people. [We need to] give them more grace.

Suicide is not the answer, people love them and care about them, they matter. One thing does not define an individual. Playing a sport does not define you, it is a part of you and it might be something that you absolutely love, and is a part of your identity, but that is not what defines you. You define you.

— Peyton Clark

Clark is studying to become a certified athletic trainer and wants to help initiate change within the athletics community to prevent potential deaths of student-athletes in the future. 

“I want to be part of the generation that is going to make the change and take the steps we need to beat the stigma and have people open to having the hard conversations. [Athletes] are a person first. If we don’t recognize that, we are not doing what we need to do to take care of them as a whole. If someone has a broken arm, they are not going to play their sport. If someone is having a bad mental health day, they are also not going to play their sport.,” Clark said. 

In the days since the news of Bernett’s death broke, Smiley has used her social media platform to share knowledge about resources and photos of people coming together in her memory. 

“I know right now the only thing I feel that I can do is share every Instagram post that comes across my feed and make sure people know [about what happened]. Seeing the other D1 schools wear the purple ribbons and feeling the support [means a lot]. We went and played at Strasburg last night and they had a sign on their dugout that said ‘Lauren Bernett, #22.’ Whether it is quietly, or taking a moment of silence or doing something visible, everyone is taking time to understand that it is okay to not be okay,” Smiley said.

Like Smiley, Clark feels that talking about the situation and reinforcing the idea that the person comes before the athlete, will help people change their mindset during this time. 

“A lot of people just talk, but we need more action. [That means] creating those support groups, having a weekly check in with your athletes from the athletic training perspective, making sure people know that they are cared about and they have options. Suicide is not the answer, people love them and care about them, they matter. One thing does not define an individual. Playing a sport does not define you, it is a part of you and it might be something that you absolutely love, and is a part of your identity, but that is not what defines you. You define you,” Clark said. 

Smiley has personally utilized the resources the high school provides and believes they can be valuable for many students. 

“[The resources at school] do make a difference. Making sure kids know that the resources are out there and especially here at the high school we have some great ones. I talk with Dr. Lora Cantwell and she is great with handling anything that you throw at her, so even just talking to your counselors and having a place to vent is important. I think instead of saying ‘alright next game’ you take a day off,” Smiley said. “Making sure that even though we are not directly related [to Lauren], people understand that we are athletes and trying to handle some of the same things.”

Sticky Note Project
Members of the JMU Sticky Note Project leave encouraging words in spots that student frequently visit on and off campus. The pictured sticky notes are located in Village Juice Kitchen in downtown Harrisonburg.

Through her own personal family experience with suicide, Clark feels that now is the time, more than ever, to take the initiative to create positive changes in athletics. 

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of lives. I do feel like it was definitely preventable. I know it is something I will never forget. I [also] lost a family member to suicide, so I know first hand what those family and friends feel. The most important takeaway is that these next few months are going to be hard, these are difficult conversations, but they are necessary,” Clark said.  “I am looking forward to getting people in the healthcare world more aware of mental health and taking those initial steps to put things into action instead of reacting. A lot of the time, people are reacting to things and not being proactive. We cannot continue going down this path. I have a lot of faith that the more that we talk about things, the more we come up with solutions, the better things will be for everyone.”

Clark believes that implementing new protocols in high school athletics and normalizing the conversation around mental health will also help student-athletes understand what their priorities should be. 

“Something that can be started is having that pre-season meeting talking about mental health. Even in the classroom because it is not always just athletes, it can be anyone at any time in their life. For athletes though, that preseason conversation discusses warning signs and reminds them that sports are supposed to be a source of happiness. It is not meant to make you unhappy and add more stress than it [already] is. It is a team effort, it is not just on the athletic trainer or the athlete, but also coaches, teachers, guidance counselors and all around. JMU has a club called ‘Dukes Let’s Talk’ where all the student athletes meet once a week and talk about what has been going on and talk about resources. Implementing something [at the high school level] could be very beneficial,” Clark said. 

Prioritize you, not the field you play on.

— Ashlyn Smiley

Smiley hopes that through the grief the community is feeling, people reset their expectations for student-athletes of all ages and shift their mindset moving forward. 

“You are a human first,” Smiley said. “Be a human first, take care of yourself first. If coaches are mad at you for taking a mental health day, that is their fault. 

Student athletes at all levels deal with the pressure of academic and athletics and the world has seen the effect that the immense pressure can have on individuals. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance or needs to find resources, please see the information below. Student athlete or not, you are equally important. 

“Take your mental health day,” Smiley said. “Prioritize you, not the field you play on.”

JMU Athletics officials provided no further comment at this time. 


Sentara RMH Emergency Department: 540-689-1414

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255