Get Your Head In The Game: Mental Health in Athletes

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Athlete exercises and practices while struggling with mental health stress


It’s no secret that mental health awareness is a growing concern throughout our society. However, did you know that individuals between 18 and 25, the age group that student-athletes beginning their professional careers often fall into, are
over twice as susceptible to mental illness as individuals who are 50 or older. Being a top-level athlete puts pressure not just on the body, but also on the mind. Between balancing the priorities of their studies and sport, being a role-model, and the pressures of competing, it’s a lot for one young athlete to handle. So much so, that the NCAA reports that up to one-quarter of student-athletes feel exhausted from the mental demands of their sport!

Just as an athlete needs to train their body to perform the best for their sport, the same care and consideration should be taken to train their minds. There are best practices that coaches, sports medicine team members, and athletic trainers (AT) can follow in order to help their athletes feel healthy both in their mind and body! When an athlete does suffer from a mental health challenge, the sooner it can be diagnosed and treated, the better in terms of the success of their careers.

All this to say, the importance of mental health in athletes cannot be understated! That’s why we’ve provided you with an overview of why athletes are so susceptible to mental health concerns, and what you can do to help them out when they’re needing support.

Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness

When an athlete gets physically injured, they are met with an entire team ready to come to their aid. Unfortunately, these resources aren’t often at the same caliber when it comes to mental health. And still, even with what resources are available, athletes are unlikely to seek them out due to stigma and the perception that they should always be ‘healthy’ and ‘strong.’

Luckily, there have been efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness in sport. Many professional athletes are coming forward to publicly share their own battles and mental health challenges. Some of these courageous athletes include Keith O’Neil, Clara Hughes, Brandon Marshall, Corey Hirsch and Michael Phelps. With mental health being a problem in sports, athletes opening up about their struggles and starting a discussion on the importance of mental health helps to reduce this stigma.

Why Are Athletes Vulnerable To Mental Health Challenges?

Young woman swims in dark and dreary water as she struggles with mental health challenges

 

Of course, mental health is something that everyone should be mindful of. However, athletes tend to be incredibly vulnerable to mental illness due to the stress and pressure of competition. The American Psychiatric Association cites a large number of high-performance athletes struggling with mental health issues, including eating disorders, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. So why are athletes so susceptible? Of course, we’ve covered the stress and pressures of competition, but there are other factors at play too. 

One factor that makes athletes more susceptible to mental health challenges is that high-performance athletes tend to be young adults. This age group, as we previously stated, tends to be incredibly susceptible to mental illness, as they are in an age group where they're coming into full development, and hit hard by life and environmental influences in their lives. Not only are they struggling with the pressures of their sport, but also the pressures one faces as they come into adulthood

Another cause for athlete mental health challenges can be physical injuries, which are both physically and mentally painful. Injuries may cause an athlete mental distress, especially when it means missing a game, a season, or even ending their career. So take this into consideration when you're prescribing treatment for your injured players. They may need both physical treatment and some mental health support. Additionally, if the injury involves a concussion, this can have tremendous effects on one’s mental health. Severe concussions may lead to mood disorders, sleeping disorders, and depression.

Did you know about these 5 alternative concussion recovery tips?

How Coaches, ATs & The Sports Medicine Team Can Help

Dedicated coach supports his athlete as he struggles with his mental health during a big game

 

Coaches, sports medicine team members and ATs are the frontline when it comes to any issues regarding an athlete’s health and wellness. Being aware of the typical signs of mental illness can be extremely beneficial to the ongoing health of your athletes.

Though ATs are not technically trained to treat mental illness, it's important for all ATs to know what the typical signs and symptoms of mental illness are so that they can refer their athletes to the proper resources or health professionals. The signs that a mental health issue is arising with an athlete tend to be exhibited in their talk, behavior and mood. ATs should also consider is how physical injuries can have psychological responses. For example, an athlete who is dealing with a chronic injury may struggle with their own sense of identity, and in turn face psychological stress such as depression or anxiety.

Remember these factors, along with the fact that you play a big role in your athletes’ daily lives and overall wellness. This means you should be prepared that they may come to you when they need some help. 73% of student-athletes believe that their coach cares about their mental health, and many say they would be comfortable talking to them about these issues. Keep this in mind! Your athletes trust you and your opinion and may very likely confide in you if you let them.

NCAA Best Practices

With the pressures of competition, young athletes overcome hurdles both emotionally and physically

 

Luckily, mental health awareness is growing throughout the athletics industry. With famous athletes speaking up about the reality of mental illness in the industry, this is setting a much needed example and changing the conversation.

World-class organizations like the NCAA have also responded to the influx of mental health concerns in sports. The NCAA’s Sport Science Institute has multiple resources on the topic (many of which are included in the resource section on this post), including the best practices that sports medicine teams should consider.

Here are the best practices, according to the NCAA:

  • Have The Proper Resources On Hand: Schools are advised to have licensed (and qualified) individuals available for the mental health care of college athletes.
  • Work Together: Athletic departments, sports medicine departments, and the campus mental health service center should all work together to have written emergency (and non-emergency) plans in place for when a college athlete does face a mental health concern. 
  • Be Prepared From The Onset: Integrate mental health screening tools into your pre-participation screening process. You should also have a written mental health referral plan communicated to student athletes, prior to them joining the team. 
  • Education is Power: Educate all student athletes and faculty about mental health, and ensure that you are creating a supportive environment for these considerations. 

What An EHR Can Do To Help

If you haven’t already made the switch to an EHR, it may be a good time to consider it. Not only will it mean that your team can improve their efficiency and productivity, but it will also improve the quality of patient care, and the degree of communication that goes on amongst your team.

By having a holistic, safe, and secure health record for each athlete, ATs are able to better track signs and symptoms that an athlete may be suffering from mental illness. They can then use their EHR to communicate with other sports medicine professionals to be able to direct the athlete to the best support resource.

Additionally, we discussed how concussions can impact mental health. Diagnose concussions the moment they happen with Presagia Sports’ built-in SCAT3 (soon to be SCAT5!) concussion assessment. As Presagia Sports can come with you wherever you go, the AT can perform the concussion assessment right on the field, and determine whether or not the player is clear to return to the game or sport.

These are just a few of the reasons why it’s time to make the switch to Presagia Sports! Are you ready to see more?

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Additional Resources

Looking for additional resources to help your athletes with their own mental health and wellness? Here are some more pieces for you:

NCAA Mental Health Resources:

Presagia Sports Wellness Resources: