Mental Health Struggles in Student Athletes and How To Prevent Them

Depression is a common mental health issue that affects a significant number of the world's population. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability around the world and one out of every 13 global citizens suffers from anxiety.

Although many of those who suffer from mental health problems are adults, up to 20% of the world's children under the age of 19 suffer from mental health issues. Suicide remains the third leading cause of death in children between the ages of 12 and 19.

Athletes, in particular, are especially susceptible to mental health issues. The environment surrounding sports can be hyper-competitive and the pressure put on students to keep up with their courses as well as their game can take its toll physically and mentally.

Why are student athletes susceptible to mental health issues?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association published a study on student-athlete suicides and depression in 2015. During the nine-year study, 35 student athletes suicided, making up 7.3% of the student athlete mortality rate.

Researchers in the study found that athletes practice 39 hours a week on average while keeping up with a full course load. During the off-season, athletes claimed to spend just as much time practicing.

High stress levels in a competitive environment are likely the cause behind student athletes' depression and anxiety. Fortunately, there are ways to catch the signs a student athlete is struggling with mental health issues before their depression reaches a dangerous point.

Common signs an athlete is struggling with mental health

One of the first signs a student athlete is suffering from mental health problems is a change in behaviour. These behavioural changes may include:

  • Moodiness/irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in eating habits/isolation while eating
  • Lack of interest/joy in their sport
  • Conflict with teammates
  • Obsession or rigidity around exercise and food
  • Preference to exercise rather than spend time with friends/family
  • Obsession with losing/gaining weight

Another sign a student athlete may be suffering from mental health issues are physical changes. These physical changes may include:

  • Overuse/chronic injuries
  • Training when hurt, tired, or sick
  • Rapid/extreme weight loss/gain
  • Interruptions in the menstrual cycle due to exercise/low weight

These changes in behaviour and physical appearance can be distressing. If you or a loved one are experiencing these signs, it may be in your best interest to seek psychological help.

How to prevent sports-related mental health issues

You may be able to help prevent the student athlete in your life from developing sports-related mental health issues by encouraging a healthy attitude toward sports and fitness.

Consider the following tips for parents, friends, trainers, and coaches to encourage the student athlete in your life and promote mental wellness.

  1. Create a list of psychologist referrals to use/provide when you believe an athlete may be struggling.
  2. Don't wait for athletes to search for resources on their own. Instead, provide athletes with helpful resources on body image, weight, and dieting ahead of training.
  3. Take the time to explore and analyze your own values and perceptions on body image, weight, and dieting. This can help prevent you from making biased decisions or from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It also helps to know your own perceptions of body image to get a better understand of where you may need to expand your horizons.
  4. When you emphasize the importance of weight and make derogatory comments about weight, you open a door in an athlete's mind about their own body image. For this reason, eliminate derogatory comments about weight from your everyday speech entirely and direct conversations away from the importance of weight.
  5. If an athlete has been found to have eating problems such as an eating disorder, don't stop their athletic participation automatically. The athlete may see this as a punishment, which can cause them to hide their problems from you in order to continue the sport. Only stop their athletic participation if it's been advised by a medical professional. To better assess the athlete's condition, consult with a medical professional or psychologist.
  6. Instead of emphasising the importance of weight, emphasise the health risks related to energy deficiency. This is especially important for female athletes who have a lower body weight.
  7. Encourage self-confidence in athletes by promoting a positive self-image and good self-esteem.
  8. Pay close attention to the warning signs surrounding potential mental health issues, especially eating disorders. If you do notice warning signs, take them seriously. Individuals suffering from eating disorders have a suicide rate of 15% and a mortality rate between 10 to 15%. On top of the suicide rate of student athletes, these numbers are extremely dangerous.

Student athletes are often reluctant to seek help because of social stigmas and the fear of being taken off the team or benched. However, it's important to seek help if you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues.

Left untreated, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders can cause self-injurious behaviors and even suicide.

Fortunately, these mental health issues can be treated using talk therapies such as interpersonal psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy alongside antidepressants. But before a student athlete can receive the treatment they need, they first need to seek help.

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