Mental health is an important and often overlooked dimension of overall young athlete health and optimal functioning. Mental health exists on a continuum, with resilience and thriving on one end of the spectrum and mental health disorders that disrupt a young- athlete’s functioning and performance at the other.
Approximately one in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year, and this rate tends to be highest among young adults, many of whom are college junior athletes or young athletes.
Prevalence estimates of mental illness among young athletes are relatively similar to their non-athlete peers. Even in the absence of a clinically diagnosable mental health disorder, young athletes may have impaired overall well-being as a result of sub-clinical symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and insomnia or the misuse of substances such as alcohol or prescription drugs.
Emerging adulthood is an important and sometimes difficult developmental period. Collage athletes are faced with similar developmental challenges as their non-athlete peers and additionally must respond to the challenges and opportunities of collegiate sport. The sport environment has both risk and protective factors for mental health disorders. Additionally, genetic predispositions and environmental influences outside of the sport environment may impact mental health.
Mental and physical health are inextricably linked. For example, there is evidence suggesting an elevated risk of injury among athletes who experience anxiety or depression, who abuse alcohol or who have an eating disorder. Furthermore, the athlete’s psychological response to injury has the potential to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities to depression or anxiety, substance abuse or disordered eating behaviors.
Insomnia and sleep disorders can be an indicator or risk factor for mental health challenges, and can compromise academic and athletic performance through direct or indirect pathways.
Mental health is a key component of young athlete wellness, and the athletics department can play a pivotal role in providing an environment that supports wellness while also providing resources so that young-athletes can obtain referrals to mental health services.
The sport environment is an important venue for establishing mental health promotion practices, destigmatizing mental health challenges, normalizing care seeking, facilitating early identification of mental health disorders and ensuring that all student-athletes in need receive care from a licensed practitioner who is qualified to provide mental health services. It is also an important venue to learn about the role that mental well-being plays in total health and the ability to thrive, both on and off the field of play. Indeed, sport can provide an exceptional opportunity to promote and develop mental wellness for life.
Student-athlete mental well-being is best served through a collaborative process of engaging the full complement of available campus and community resources, which may include athletics, campus health, counseling services, disability services and community agencies.