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How Athletes Are Affected by Mental Health

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The prevalence of athletes struggling with their mental health is seldom addressed and far more widespread than expected. In a survey, 21% of male and 28% of female collegiate athletes reported experiencing symptoms of depression, while even more have experienced some form of anxiety.1

Mental Health of Elite Athletes

Although the mental health of pro athletes has often gone unnoticed, sportsmen and women like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps are making a significant impact on the public’s awareness of the relationship between sport and mental illness.

Why Do Athletes Develop Mental Health Disorders?

Many factors in an athlete’s personal and professional life can negatively affect their mental health, including:

  • Stress: Stress is a constant in the lives of most professional athletes and can manifest physically, in the intensity and duration of their training, as well as mentally when it occurs before a competition or important match.
  • Expectations of athletic performance: Pro-athletes are held to very high mental and physical standards, placing an immense amount of pressure on them to perform and win. In this case, both the stress before competing and the possible disappointment should they fail to meet expectations may cause their mental health to plummet. Many athletes describe the shame that they feel if their performance doesn’t meet external expectations.
  • Overtraining: Overtraining for a competition or to reach a personal goal can quickly lead to physical and mental burnout, leaving athletes with plummeting mental health as well as possible injuries.
  • Injury: An injury can be a significant contributor to poor mental health, especially among male athletes.2 Injuries in both male and female athletes most typically cause depression. Head injuries are also likely to cause traumatic brain injuries, especially in contact sports, leading to aggression and other mental disorders.
  • Constant criticism: Being the subject of continual criticism from coaches, trainers, fans, and the general population can be trying and stressful for any athlete. When combined with other factors on this list, the results can be devastating for their mental health,
  • Fear of failure: A constant dread of failing or losing can cause subconscious stress that negatively affects an athlete’s mental health whether they realize it or not.
  • Perfectionism: An athlete’s drive for perfectionism, or the obsession of their coaches or family members with the idea that they are superhuman, especially in relation to males, can be detrimental to their mental health once they can no longer meet these expectations or uphold their previous performances.
  • Public view: Criticism, ridicule, and even racial or sexist outbursts in real life or on social media can be a negative influence in many athletes’ lives, leaving them struggling to cope with the mental health issues being exposed to the public eye may entail.

Athletes Most Likely to Experience Mental Health Issues

Some athletes feel the heat more than others and may be at a greater risk of developing mental health issues.

Student and College Athletes

Student-athletes, especially those in high school or college, are often at their most vulnerable to outside stressors while taking on immense pressure to perform while they’re “still at their peak.”

Athletes at this level often are already navigating the peer pressures so many young adults at these stages in their lives may encounter which are compounded by the pressures to perform in their sport.

Combine this with the competition for scholarships and bursaries, and the stress can become too much for these teens and young adults to bear.

Professional Athletes

Professional athletes must perform well or risk losing their spot on the team, meaning losing their income and career.

They are also more likely to hide injuries or anxiety to continue playing and suffer the consequences for doing so long after they recover.

Retired Athletes

Retired professional athletes are more prone to developing depression once they no longer have the training to look forward to every day or face life without the constant drive for perfection and bettering themselves.

Types of Mental Health Disorders Experienced by Athletes

The two most common mental illnesses experienced by athletes are depression and anxiety. However, these are by no means the only disorders. The most likely ones are covered in the list below.3

Depression

Depression can occur at any age and to any athlete. The disorder is typically characterized by:

  • Constant feelings of sadness, helplessness, or guilt
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lethargy

Depression is a widespread mental illness that can be effectively treated through therapy and medication.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders range in type and severity, from social anxiety to generalized anxiety disorders. This condition may give rise to anxiety attacks and a range of other unwanted symptoms in athletes who are nervous or fear failure or a particular event.

The symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Anxious thoughts
  • Nervousness
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Feeling like something bad will happen at any time

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are prevalent among athletes who must make a certain weight to compete or excel in their sport. It is a common misconception that eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia only affect female athletes. Still, the disorder is very prominent among male athletes despite the general lack of awareness.

Identifying the symptoms of eating disorders may be difficult and can vary according to the individual’s type of disorder. Signs to look out for include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Meal skipping
  • Binge eating
  • An unnatural obsession with counting calories or exercising

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders typically include bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder.

The occurrence of these illnesses in relation to sports can exacerbate the pressure, anxiety, or extreme psychological stressors.

General symptoms of personality disorders include:

  • Self-harming
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Low self-esteem

Body Dysmorphia

This disorder often occurs in athletes where weight or physical attributes are seen as vitally important. Body dysmorphia makes the people who have it feel obsessed with their appearance and possible flaws, often seeing problems with their weight where there are none. Other symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) include:

  • The constant need to look at yourself in the mirror or obsessively avoiding mirrors
  • Excessive exercise
  • Very low confidence regarding appearance

The Dangers of Mental Health Disorders in Athletes

These mental health issues can cause various adverse effects if not addressed and treated, including:

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse while self-medicating, or originating from a sports medicine practice of prescribing painkillers or other drugs to help athletes continue to compete, is not only another factor that could worsen the state of an athlete’s mental and physical health but could have long-term effects on their performance, behavior, and relationships.

Substance abuse can lead to addiction, physical dependence, or even overdosing, which could be fatal.

Some of the most common substances abused by athletes with mental health issues include:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants
  • Marijuana

Suicide

Suicide is a seldom-spoken-about result of untreated mental illness. It can happen to anyone, and any suicidal tendencies or ideations should be addressed immediately by a medical professional or therapist.

Obstacles When Seeking Treatment

Often athletes who seek mental health treatment treatment encounter various obstacles, which may include:

  • Stigma: People often see mental illness as a weakness, discouraging athletes from seeking help, especially if the press or paparazzi document their lives.
  • Lack of Understanding: Although mental illness in athletes has been receiving increasing attention, and groups like the International Olympic Committee have published a consensus statement regarding these disorders, many athletes, coaches, managers, and even fans or members of the public do not understand the reality of dealing with mental illness. This could make it challenging for athletes to seek help, especially if it is unnecessary.
  • Fear of Being Fired or Made to Quit the Sport: As mental illness is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, many athletes refuse to seek help in fear they may be fired or kept from competing in events or competitions.

How to Help Make Getting Treatment Easier

These obstacles mean it is vital for treatment centers or mental health ambassadors to employ support staff trained in sport psychology and dealing with the effects of mental illnesses on athletes.

Other ways to overcome the obstacles to treatment include:

  • Creating awareness of the realities of mental illness
  • Encouraging open discussions about the mental health issues experienced by athletes
  • Offering services specialized in treating athletes with mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders if necessary

Getting Help

Mental health treatment facilities offering specialized services for athletes are the best option for professional sportsmen and women to find help for their disorders. These treatments often involve a combination of:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Family groups

Finding the right treatment center and support network can help vastly increase the chances of recovery for athletes looking to get treatment for their mental disorders.

If you or someone you love suffers from a mental health issue and needs help, get in touch with our team at 855 414-8100 to find the advice and assistance you need.

Sources:

  1. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Mental_Health_of_Elite_Athletes
  2. https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-018-0175-7
  3. https://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mind-body-and-sport-psychiatrist-perspective

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