Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Athletes

The recent news reports about Minnesota Vikings Defensive End Everson Griffen barricading himself in his house after calling the police was distressing. This was only the latest in a long line of troubling behavior exhibited by high-profile American athletes. He subsequently announced that he is bipolar in an Instagram post, and it was encouraging to read about the support he is receiving from both his teammates and Vikings’ officials.

Putting Mental Health First in High School and Collegiate Athletics

While fewer than one percent of the population becomes an athlete professionally, hundreds of thousands of young people engage in college sports, and nearly 8 million high school students are involved in organized sports (as of 2018, and according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS).

This provides an opportunity for educators at the high school and college levels to recognize possible mental health issues and proactively help our nation’s young athletes. We need to seize this opportunity through training and educating coaches and trainers of high school and college athletes.

The existence of Governing Boards that oversee athletics at the high school and college levels offers a system into which training and education can be rolled out to educators. All collegiate sports are governed by the NCAA control, and the National Federation of State High School Associations presides over high school athletics in 51 states.

Mental Health Insights That Our Nation’s Coaches Need

Coaches can assist young athletes today who may experience depression, anxiety, or related conditions by looking for specific symptoms. This is especially helpful for issues that arise from substance use disorders (SUDs) or eating problems, such as anorexia.

Dealing with the Stress of Competing

Physical and emotional stress can have devastating results on young athletes. Some athletes are encouraged to keep going, even through painful physical trials. This type of thinking can force an athlete to get injured or feel like a failure if they don’t meet the expectations of the team and coaches.

Reducing the Stigma Associated with Mental or Physical Symptoms

Coaches need to let players know they can reach out to them for help, and there is nothing wrong with feeling discouraged, depressed, or anxious. Athletes may be reticent to discuss their internal struggles, as the culture of athletics encourages them to be strong in competition.

Coaches also need to learn more about behavioral symptoms that indicate an athlete might be ‘at-risk.’ These symptoms may include:

  • Worrying too much
  • Moodiness
  • Overuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Anxiety-related illnesses, such as stomach upset or headache
  • Problems with coping with everyday stress

Athletes with Substance Use Disorders and Disordered Eating

Once known to affect young females, bulimia and anorexia impact young male athletes today as well. Coaches need to know how to deal with these problems. If they notice an athlete’s eating habits are unhealthy, they need to address the issue immediately.

Teens now abuse drugs at an all-time high. The availability of prescription drugs, such as opioids, is a contributing factor. Athletes are more likely to take prescription painkillers when they feel stressed to push themselves too hard. Coaches, in these instances, need to know more about the hazards of drug misuse and communicate with players objectively.

How Coaches Can Better Help Athletes

Coaches need to be accessible to their players and encourage them to ask for help.  Then, they need to commend them for their courage in opening up about their mental health struggles. Playing sports is not about being tough, but being your “best self,” while accepting your flaws and some of your limitations.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman has been helping people of all ages with mental health struggles for almost 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic and the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego.