Keeping an athlete’s physical body strong and healthy is the primary focus of athletic trainers. However, they also take care of what can’t be bandaged or splinted – the athlete’s mental health.
Injury and Mental Health
It is true that many young people will deal with mental health issues at some point in their lives. In fact, one study on the mental health of young athletes suggests that as many as 10% will experience mild to severe depression and anxiety at some point in their high school career. If left untreated, the results can be devastating.
For that reason, mental health in young athletes is worth studying and understanding. Often, injury can open the door to underlying emotional issues. For example, when a young athlete becomes injured, their mental health can suffer for a variety of reasons, including; chronic pain, loss of ability to participate, pressure from not performing as well as they would like, or as a symptom of concussion.
The Role of Athletic Trainers
Athletic trainers are not the main provider that an athlete will see for help with mental health issues. However, they are often a person that the athlete sees daily. Many young athletes confide in their athletic trainers, and injured athletes may visit them daily. Because of this consistent contact, an athletic trainer can quickly recognize changes in mental state. Athletic trainers often spot a struggling athlete and point them in the right direction to get help. Recognizing early and referring appropriately can make all the difference in getting the young person back on track and feeling better.
There are different warning signs for different mental health issues. Generally, keep an eye out for sudden changes in thoughts or behaviors, feeling extreme highs or lows, social withdrawal, dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits, inability to manage responsibility, frequent outbursts of anger, confused thinking, excessive fears, worries and anxieties. A number or resources are available for athletes to utilize when they are having any issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders or not feeling quite right. Mental Health America, NCAA Sport Science Institute, and MentalHealth.gov are a few online resources that can help if you or someone you know is struggling.
Protecting Mental Health
There are a few ways that you can proactively protect your mental health. For example, eat a well- balanced nutritious diet, avoid sugar, caffeine and processed foods, exercise regularly, meditate or practice mindfulness, and establish a strong support network. Above all, never hesitate to seek counseling or the help of a mental healthcare practitioner when needed. Finally, it is important to remember that it is okay to not be okay. Sometimes young athletes have injuries that are not visible to anyone else. Athletic trainers are there to help with all injuries, visible or not.
Written by: Alex Walker, ATC athletic trainer for The Center Foundation and Sisters High School in Sisters, OR. Learn more about Alex HERE.
The Center Foundation places dedicated athletic trainers in local high schools to provide sports medicine services to young athletes at no charge to the students or their families. Learn more about our work HERE.
Weber, Stephanie et al. “Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression in Young Athletes Using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale” Frontiers in physiology vol. 9 182. 7 Mar. 2018, doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00182. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5845908/ (accessed online 12/12/2018)