Mental Health and Young Athletes

Good mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual engages with their abilities and potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community (WHO, 2010). Likewise, a mental health disorder is typically a diagnosable state of individual dysfunction which affects the person’s cognition and brain function and results in changes to behaviour, mood, thoughts, perception and judgment. Very often the extent of a mental health problem is enough to disrupt a person’s ability to carry out normal daily activities and engage in satisfying personal relationships.

Approximately one third of Australians will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime, and 45% of Australians will experience moderate to high levels of psychological distress in their lifetime.
The most common mental illnesses are the anxiety disorders (14.4%), depressive disorders (6.2%) and substance use disorders (5.1%: ABS). Less common mental health problems include eating disorders or psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. It is important to note that people can have mental health problems that are not serious enough for a diagnosis but still cause significant stress and poor functioning. Athletes typically represent the younger end of the population demographic. Mental health disorders are more common in younger people. In Australia, at least 26% of young people are likely to experience a significant mental health problem over a 12 month period, which is higher than any other age group (ABS). It is concerning that the majority, approximately 87% of young men and 69% of young women; do not receive any professional assistance (NCAA, 2012).

Athletes are considered an elite group in society, healthy and privileged and therefore often thought to be a lower risk for mental health problems. However this is not always the case, athletes competing at high levels have unique stressors which may increase risk for developing mental health problems. For example, the psychological and physical demands of training and competition; easy access to a variety of substances, injuries; time commitment to their sport; personal relationship problems; conflict with team mates or coaches; functioning in a high pressure environment; dealing poor performances; developing an unrealistic self-image; isolation from family supports; and therefore they may lose a realistic perspective about themselves and their problems when trying to balance private and public life.

So what are the major mental health risks for athletes?

  • Anxiety and depressive disorders across both genders. There is a gender bias here as female athletes are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness than elite male athletes. This may in part be because male athletes are less likely to seek help.
  • Athletes are particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety after injuries, or sudden changes to important personal relationships, or substance misuse.
  • Make no mistake; depression is the number 1 risk factor for suicide.
  • Athletes who suffer from multiple concussions during their career may be at increased risk of depression (AIS).
Good mental health for athletes has benefits beyond their own well-being as it is linked to optimal athletic performance.
An athlete who can maintain a positive mental state will often have the edge and play at their optimal capacity. Good mental health equals good focused physical performance. A major problem for athletes is that they often resist seeking help for mental health problems because of stigma, or thinking that help seeking is a sign of weakness, or fear about impact on their career, or a lack of understanding about their need for help. Athletes like everyone in the community need help and guidance to understand their mental health concerns and access appropriate assistance. Early identification and intervention for mental health problems is extremely important as it results in less disruption to an athlete’s life and quicker recovery. If a mental health problem is left untreated it could worsen or lead to further episodes; suicidal behaviours; relationship difficulties; physical health problems; risk taking behaviour; and alcohol or other drug use, all of which will significantly impair their performance and well-being.

Most mental health problems can be treated very effectively with either psychological therapies, or medications or a combination of both. With psychological therapy, people are often surprised regarding how quickly they can improve. Medications work directly on the mood systems of the brain and are an important treatment for some people. The mental health of athletes should be considered a priority as they represent a largely unrecognised risk group in the community.

A4LifeMental Health and Young Athletes

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