Through countless surveys over many years, it has been proven that participation in high school activity programs improves the classroom performance of high school students. Recently, researchers have started to look at how participation in these programs – particularly participation in sports – affects mental health.
There are multiple studies suggesting that sports participation improves overall mental health by reducing depression and suicidal thoughts. Another area that has received significant attention lately has been the focus of single-sport, year-round athletic participation and the associated burnout. These two areas have significant overlap, particularly in the high school setting.
It is important to recognize that depression is a real illness and can affect athletes in the same way it does non-athletes. Studies show a decrease in the rate of depression in student-athletes as compared to non-athletes. However, a meta-analysis of these studies shows no significant difference in the rates of suicide attempts between athletes and non-athletes. This raises the question of why would the risk of depression fall in student-athletes, but not the suicide risk. The study’s authors suggested that this relatively higher risk of suicide in athletes is more related to acute, sudden events or changes that are specific to an athlete (i.e., failing to make a team or get a starting spot, or perceived rejection by a coach) than to depression.
Another finding is that male athletes who are “highly involved” in sports, are up to five times more successful in completing a suicide attempt than non-athletes or less involved athlete peers. While any mention of suicidal ideation in this age group deserves aggressive intervention, possessing this knowledge compels teachers, school counselors, coaches and others involved with this sub-group of male student-athletes to immediately take action if there is even a hint of suicide ideation.
In 2014, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine published a position statement entitled “Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports.” This report outlined the disadvantages of participating in sports year-round and identified different signs of burnout, many of which are very similar to the signs and symptoms of depression. One of the key challenges in treating burnout is getting parents and coaches to accept the idea that sometimes “less is more” when it comes to sports participation.
Involvement in sports can have a very positive effect on the mental health of high school students. Unfortunately, depression and risk of suicide still exist in this group of student-athletes, and, therefore, it is important to act when someone appears to be struggling. Do not think that just because a student is an athlete that he or she is immune to mental health issues. Take a stand, step in and be the difference in a student’s life.
1) Student-athletes can and do get depressed, although at a lower rate as compared to non-athletes.
2) Due to sudden or unexpected changes (not making the team, etc.), student-athletes are just as likely to attempt suicide and up to five times as likely to succeed at committing suicide as their non-athlete peers.
3) Burnout can play a considerable role in the mental health of a student-athlete and should be considered and understood by both parents and coaches.
4) Training should be provided to non-healthcare professionals to help them become aware of how to identify depression and how to get mental health providers involved as soon as possible.
Justin McCoy is the primary care sports medicine fellow at Boise State University. A graduate of Brigham Young University, McCoy completed his medical school and residency training in family medicine in the state of Arizona. He will start a job in Grand Junction, Colorado, in August as a primary care sports medicine provider upon completion of his fellowship this summer.