The Silent Battle: Depression in Athletes
Trigger warning: This post discusses depression and suicide.
What used to excite you is now an impossible chore. You’re always exhausted and struggle to get out of bed. Sometimes, you even question your existence altogether. Nothing -
The absence of meaning overwhelms your life.
If any of this resonates with you, you are far from alone. Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, especially among athletes. Unfortunately, mental health stigma plagues the sports community; athletes are told from a young age to push past pain, “tough it out,” and villanize their emotions. As a result, thousands of athletes are left to fight this battle alone, one that too often ends young lives.
We cannot continue to perpetuate a culture that forces athletes to struggle in silence. We cannot remain complacent while countless athletes are denied the help they deserve. We cannot afford to lose any more people.
The first step in fighting this battle is education. We’ll be discussing the basics of depression, how it pertains to sports, and how we can support athletes.
What is Depression?
Depression is a mood disorder that causes prolonged periods of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest. It impacts one’s ability to function daily, both mentally and physically. (2) There are various types of depression, including major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, seasonal affect disorder, bipolar disorder, and postpartum depression.
Who develops depression?
Similar to other mental illnesses, depression does not discriminate. It affects people of all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic statuses. Depression affects 6.7% of the US adult population and 8.7% of teens at any given time. Athletes are far from immune; studies estimate that up to 21% of athletes suffer from depression, nearly triple the national average. (1)
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depression manifests itself differently for everyone, but some common symptoms include:
Feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, and shame
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
Fatigue and sluggishness
Appetite and weight fluctuations
Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain, stomach aches, and headaches
Anxiety and restlessness
Trouble thinking and concentrating
Decreasing performance at school or work
Frequent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, or suicide (2)
What causes depression?
The causes of depression vary for everyone, but it is usually a combination of genetics, hormones, chemical imbalances, and environmental factors. Some risk factors include:
Other mental health issues, including anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, and OCD
Traumatic events and losses
Bullying and discrimination
How does depression relate to athletes?
Athletes are at higher risk of developing depression than the general population due to increased mental and physical stress and intense competition. For athletes, sports often are their identity; any ups and downs can drastically impact one’s mental health. Athletes can suffer from all types of depression, but there are a few that are specific to sports:
Sports-Related Injury Depression
Just as prevalent as injuries are in sports is the accompanying depression. Sports-related injury depression is depression triggered by an athletic injury and affects 51% of injured athletes. Often, the depression can have a more severe impact on an athlete than the injury itself. (1) If you have an injured teammate, check in on them regularly, and actively include them in team activities. They are a valuable team member no matter what, and they deserve the same respect and kindness as other team members.
When an athlete retires from their sport, it can be a dramatic change in their daily lives. Some athletes feel like they have lost their identity and struggle to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Athletes who retire involuntarily (injury, illness, and extenuating circumstances) are at higher risk for developing depression than those who retire voluntarily. (1)
Some athletes experience depressive episodes after declines in performance and poor competition outcomes. Any setbacks in athletic ability can impact their sense of self-worth, triggering a vicious cycle of negative self-talk and maladaptive coping mechanisms. After major sporting events for which athletes experience high levels of stress, athletes are also prone to depression from the emotional volatility that accompanies such events. (1)
How do you recover from depression?
Treatment for depression varies for everyone, but it typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. Recovery is not linear; it is normal and expected to experience many ups and downs. Having a robust support system, including coaches, teammates, mentors, and parental figures, can help athletes through rough patches and boost morale.
How can you support an athlete with depression?
This article is a great place to start! Other resources include:
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)
APA (American Psychological Association)
De-stigmatize mental health.
What’s worse than mental illness is the stigma and discrimination surrounding it perpetuated by society. These toxic influences promote shame and can feed into negative thought cycles that can worsen people’s mental health. When you see people making derogatory comments towards mental health, speak up. You never know who this may help, including yourself.
Encourage them to seek help.
Trained professionals, such as sports psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists, are an integral aspect of a successful recovery from depression. Consult local mental health organizations, your insurance company (if applicable), your school, your physician, APA’s Psychologist Locator, and Psychology Today to find professionals in your area. Most providers offer telehealth, which allows for flexible scheduling. Here's a guide on finding a suitable therapist.
Check-in on them.
Depression can be an incredibly isolating illness. Often, people will push others away when they need the most support out of fear. Make an active effort to check in consistently with peers, especially those who are at high risk. Challenge yourself to go beyond the standard “how are you?” - it can change someone’s day and possibly their life!
Treat them with kindness.
It’s cliche, but it bears repeating, especially in our current world: treat others the way you want to be treated. Struggling with mental illness does not reflect on someone’s moral value, and it does not make them any less of a person. Regardless of whether you know someone who is struggling, show them kindness, dignity, and respect.
We hope this article can serve as a starting point on your journey to recover from depression or help someone along their journey. If you are struggling with depression, know that you are not alone. The resilientHer team is here to support you, along with countless others in your life. Even though the journey is arduous, there is always hope. Please do not give up. You matter.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 immediately.
(1) 1Kean University; and 2Drexel University. Address for correspondence: Eugene Hong. “Depression in Athletes: Prevalence and Risk Factors : Current Sports Medicine Reports.” LWW, journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2015/01000/Depression_in_Athletes__Prevalence_and_Risk.17.aspx.
(2) “Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Feb. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007.