Mental illness is a growing concern among our youth. Approximately 1 in 5 youths suffer from some type of depression. Athletes are not immune from mental illness. Although athletes in general are happier and healthier than the general population, the pressure can be overwhelming. Education and recognition are paramount in dealing with depression and other forms of mental illness. We must educate the athlete and the public that it is OK to seek help, that it is not a sign of weakness.
Combating mental illness usually involves a team approach. It is typical for someone suffering from some type of depression to hide it, especially among athletes. College students are extremely susceptible to this because of all the changes going on in their lives. Some people have a hard time adjusting to change, which can lead to mood and anxiety disorders. The pressure of conforming can lead to substance abuse or eating disorders. Coaches, teammates and medical personnel must be on the lookout for any warning signs. Have they been late to practice? Are their grades dropping? Have they started drinking more or using drugs? Are they more withdrawn or hanging out with a new crowd? Do they go to the bathroom immediately after eating? Have they discussed the feeling that no one cares. We can’t be afraid to approach someone to ask questions, or to inform someone if you suspect a problem. The earlier the problem is identified, the easier it is to treat.
Another side of mental health often forgotten is injuries. As a medical professional it is easy for me to overlook the mental side of sports and injuries. When I look for injuries, I look for physical ailments. What is preventing them from playing? How can I get them back on the field? But we need to take a step back and look at the whole person. The mind and the body are connected. We cannot treat one without the other. Every person is different and we need to cognizant of that. Yes, we can fix and rehabilitate an ACL and make it almost perfect, but what happens when the athlete returns. Are they mentally ready?
We look at athletes and think they are physically and mentally tough. Everything around them is there to make them physically stronger and mentally tougher. They work with a strength coach to make them stronger and faster. You can see them getting stronger, it is quantifiable. They see an athletic trainer or physical therapist to repair an injury, to make them 100%. But are we making them mentally tougher? How do we know that they are ready to return? Depression is common among injured athletes. Being removed from their teammates and activity is a struggle for many. The fear of re-injury is real and until you go through what the athlete has gone through, it is hard to understand. Derek Rose took a lot of heat last year for not returning to basketball sooner. Yes, he was probably physically ready by all tests, but he was not mentally ready and that can lead to further injury and a ruined career.
We must make sure that we are treating the whole athlete. That we are doing what is in the best interest of the student athlete, as a person. We all must be aware of the pressures we are putting on athletes of all ages and then take a step back and make sure what we are doing is best for the person and not just the athlete part of that person.