More High School Athletes Are At Risk For Depression

By Kelly Burch 04/19/19

Intense workouts and demanding schedules have a huge impact on the lives of teens who play sports in high school.

high school athlete

Participating in team sports and exercising regularly have been shown to boost mental health—but for serious high school athletes, long practices, high expectations and harsh demands from coaches and parents are contributing to an increased risk of depression. 

“The professional consensus is that the incidence of anxiety and depression among scholastic athletes has increased over the past 10 to 15 years,” sports psychologist Marshall Mintz told The Atlantic.  

Studies have confirmed this observation, with data from 2015 finding that student athletes had more negative emotional states than students who were non-athletes. This is particularly concerning because depression is already common among teens: almost half of American adolescents will experience a mental illness before they turn 18. 

As the world of high school sports has become more intense, athletes are asked to balance rigorous and time-consuming training schedules with homework, socialization and sometimes work. All of this can add huge amounts of stress to their lives, said sports psychologist Lonnie Sarnell. 

“Do they need two-and-a-half to three hours of practice?” Sarnell said. “That extra hour of practice adds so much stress when you have four hours of homework to deal with.”

The extra hours of practice often lead to kids staying up too late and getting too few hours of sleep, something that can deteriorate mental health. 

“The biggest problem is sleep loss—all these kids are sleep-deprived, and this becomes a major contributor to anxiety and depression,” Mintz said. 

In addition, toxic coaches can contribute. High school runner Riley, who The Atlantic identified only by her middle name, said that she switched schools after her running coach berated athletes and gave them the cold shoulder as punishment after poor performances. She said that the coach’s treatment and demand for “mental toughness” left her feeling suicidal.  

“We accepted the intense anxiety before races and practice as a necessary side effect,” she said. 

Athletes can also be at risk for mental illness when an injury prevents them from playing. That’s what happened to Isabella, a high school lacrosse star who tore her ACL in her junior year. 

“It was my worst year ever,” she said of her recovery. “I’d grown up playing lacrosse, and I had no other hobbies. So when you don’t have it, you’re like, What am I going to do?”

Luckily, some people say that with more attention on the mental toll of playing sports, high schools will begin prioritizing the mental health of athletes, just like colleges have done in recent years

“What happens at the college level will trickle down to high school,” said sports psychologist Shane Murphy. “Over the next decade, we’ll see much more priority given to the mental health of high-school student athletes.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.