Student-athletes are often perceived as being in top physical shape and the epitome of health. Yet, underneath that façade can lie a scary truth.
Approximately one in every five youths in America meets the criteria for a mental health disorder, with the rate more than twice as high for those between the ages of 18 and 25 as those aged 50 and older.
Athletic trainers play a significant role in the lives student-athletes and are in a unique position to identify potential red flags, and refer athletes to mental health professionals earlier than they may have been otherwise.
For example, ATs know their athletes’ medical histories, and have been trained to look for signs of depression – an issue that often arises following an injury. For some athletes, taking time away from the sport they love can result in feelings of aimlessness and as though a part of their core identity has been stripped away.
The reverse can happen, as well. Student athletes with mental health disorders can be predisposed to injury because their illness can distract them in situations that are high-risk, resulting in increased injuries.
Given the interrelationship between the physical and mental, it may be helpful to think of athletes with mental health disorders as “injured.” As with physical injuries, mental health problems may affect athletic performance and can – and perhaps should – limit or even preclude training and competition until successfully managed or treated.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association is continuously working to make sure ATs’ education on mental health disorders is up-to-date – just as it does with physical and medical conditions. In recent years, it has published position and consensus statements regarding this large field of study that address eating disorders, psychological issues stemming from injury, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and more. NATA also provides guidelines for recognizing these conditions and referring student-athletes to someone who can help.
All schools are encouraged to have a plan that focuses on education, early recognition of potential problems and an effective process to refer athletes to mental health professionals. While it’s not the role of ATs to diagnose mental illness, it’s their job to work with the sports medicine team to ensure athletes with “psychological concerns” get proper treatment from qualified professionals.
The stigma of mental health disorders is slowly declining, and with that comes more opportunities to get those in need the help they deserve. Sports medicine teams are expanding to include licensed mental healthcare professionals, and ATs are providing more mental health resources to their student-athletes than ever before. This issue isn’t going away, but ATs are making sure that mental health is just as important as physical health in the athletic training room.