Research has shown that exercise and other physical activities can boost moods and improve overall mental health. However, playing sports does not mean student athletes are immune to mental health disorders. In fact, multiple studies and surveys through the years have revealed that anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are prevalent among student athletes:
- 6.3% of collegiate athletes were found to be clinically depressed, while 24% had clinically significant low moods (Wolanin A, Hong E, Marks D, et al., 2016).
- Many student athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than their nonathletic counterparts (National Athletic Trainers’ Association, 2015).
- About 30% of collegiate athletes admitted that they felt “intractably overwhelmed during the past month” (National Collegiate Athletic Association survey, 2015).
- Mental health worries topped the list of student athletes’ concerns (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2014).
Why are student athletes at risk of mental health issues?
#1 They work longer hours
Student athletes have very demanding schedules. On top of their full academic workload, they have daily practices (typically done before and after classes), competitions (often requiring travel), strength and conditioning programs, and sports medicine/rehab appointments.
#2 They often lack sleep
Since student athletes have such packed schedules, they often have to stay up late studying and cramming for exams. No wonder most student athletes report four nights of insufficient sleep per week. One-third of them also have fewer than seven hours of sleep every night. Sleep deprivation can become a major contributor to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
#3 They are expected to remain strong
Student athletes are repeatedly told that they are supposed to be tough, both mentally and physically. They’re expected to show up to all of their sporting commitments, leave any outside thoughts off the field/court, and to devote all of their focus and energy to training. If they’re going through anything, they must “suck it up and be a man” and push themselves to the limit.
#4 Their identity and self-esteem are strongly tied to being an athlete
The mental health of student athletes can be negatively affected when they don’t perform well at the “thing they enjoy and do best.” It’s even worse when they suffer a serious injury that prevents them from training and competing. They often get restless and anxious about falling behind in their sport. And since many of them drop their other interests and activities to focus on their sport, they feel lost when they can’t play, thinking, “What am I going to do?”
#5 They usually face tremendous pressure from their parents and coaches
Student athletes suffer when their parents and/or coaches make it seem like the only way to achieve athletic excellence is through relentless training. Some parents and coaches even become harsh when trying to motivate student athletes to work harder, which can have adverse effects on the latter’s mental health.
Pressure from parents and coaches doesn’t always have to be heavy-handed to affect student athletes. Aware of sacrifices their parents and coaches made to support their sport, student athletes will endure playing a sport long past the time they enjoy it. And if they do quit, they are likely to feel like they’re failures for letting their parents and coaches down, which can lead to self-destructive behavior.
How can you help your student-athlete child?
Statistics show that only 10% of collegiate athletes with mental health conditions seek help, likely because they feel a sense of shame in doing so. That’s why it’s important to let your child know that investing in their mental health is not a sign of weakness. A great strategy to use when dealing with goal-oriented groups like student athletes is to frame mental healthcare as a way to improve their performance in their sport. After all, their mental health affects their physical health, and vice versa.
If you’re in the Chicago, Evanston, or Lake Forest areas, book a consultation with Meridian Psychiatric Partners. We specialize in mental health services for children, adolescents, and emerging adults. We look forward to working with you!