The Link Between Athletes and Depression

More high school and college athletes are experiencing depression than ever before. According to the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), depression affects approximately 17.3 American adults, or just over 7% of the U.S. population age 18 and older. Yet recent studies have found that among high school and college athletes ages 18-25, anywhere from 15-21% of them suffer from depression — that’s nearly double the rate of American adults.

This dramatic increase indicates that athletes are under higher amounts of stress and are more likely to be depressed. At this age, athletes who continue to major universities are under enormous amounts of pressure to perform well for the college. They must entertain a large student body and fan population while maintaining their class schedule, workout schedule, study routine, and free time. They may be told to push through their pain and ignore injuries to stay on the field. Sadly for many, this pressure seems to be an acceptable part of student-athlete life.

Injuries and Depression

For starters, there is a proven link between concussions and depression. Scientific research has concluded that sports concussions have a lasting impact on one’s personality and emotional state. Athletes who experienced three or more concussions have reported a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with depression than athletes who have had zero concussions. Other injuries can have the same damaging effects as concussions — or worse.

When researchers compared athletes who had concussions to those with torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL), they found that athletes with an ACL injury were even more likely to experience depression than those with a concussion. Numerous studies have found similar links between injuries and depression. One study of more than 900 NCAA athletes found that 33% of athletes with an injury and 27% of uninjured athletes could be considered depressed.

Another study found that 51% of surveyed athletes who sustained an injury experienced mild to severe depression symptoms, suggesting that the athletes may feel pressured to come back after an injury at equal or better performance levels than before. They may also feel depressed if they are unable to play their sport or if they are limited to specific physical therapy activities. They will almost certainly feel distanced or different from the rest of their teammates.

Athletic Performance and Depression

Depression typically comes with a stigma attached to it. One of the decorated Olympians, Michael Phelps, recently opened up about his battle with depression and its relation to his pressure to be the best father, husband, and professional swimmer. Again, scientific research has found a correlation between athletic performance and symptoms of depression.

A study conducted with 50 elite professional swimmers showed that 34% of athletes reported lasting depression episodes, which could last for the rest of their lives. The top quartile of the elite swimmers had depression scores that nearly doubled their respective competitors. Athletes who fail or lose during a competition are more likely to experience depression as well. It is increasingly vital for mental health professionals to be aware of this issue when treating athletes who did not win a major game, race, event, etc.

The athlete and the trainer/mental health provider must be mindful of the bouts of depression that can arise after experiencing a loss or setback. It may not only be the athlete’s ideas and self-expectations that are causing the depression to occur — but it can also stem from expectations that were set by coaches, teammates, and family.

Mental Health for Athletes

At this time, there is limited evidence linking athletes’ high-performance levels and their mental health experiences. It is likely that the utilization of mental health benefits for athletes might be underreported or hardly used for many reasons. Sports medicine teams are often encouraged to provide psychiatric care and mental health services to athletes in lieu of licensed professionals. Ideally, these sports medicine teams should implement mandatory mental health briefings for athletes, make mental health resources readily available at any time, and help them schedule appointments with licensed professionals if needed.

Warning Signs

Atypical warning signs of depression in athletes could present themselves as anger and irritability, engagement in unhealthy coping mechanisms, overtraining, or substance abuse. Watch for these signs in all athletes and assess when it is the right time to seek mental health help.

At Achieve Concierge, we believe that we can help athletes and all types of individuals with their depression. — including athletes — with their depression. We help determine the best course of treatment for each patient by choosing one or a combination of treatment options, such as psychotherapy, exercise, and medication. To speak with one of our mental health specialists, call us today at (619) 393-5871.

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