Turning The Lens On Student Athletes’ Mental Health Issues

Youth Sport Safety Summit meets in Dallas, TX

This past Monday, March 2, 2015, the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) held their sixth Youth Sports Safety Summit in Dallas, TX.  The event was co-hosted by the Youth Sports Safety Alliance. According to the Youth Sports Safety Alliance’s website:

“Since 2010, the Youth Sports Safety Alliance has worked to raise awareness, advance legislation and improve medical care for young athletes across the country. High school athletes suffer 2 million injuries, 200,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations every year.

The Alliance is committed to reducing those numbers and improving the health and safety of young athletes. Spearheaded by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, more than 100 organizations have joined together in the knowledge that speaking and acting collectively is more effective.”

This year’s summit tuned the lens to focus on the athletes’ mental health issues.

New policy statement from NATA offers guidelines…

A consensus statement was published Monday: Interassociation Recommendations for Developing a Plan to Recognize and Refer Student-Athletes With Psychological Concerns at the Secondary School Level. As Timothy Neal, who chaired the task force, explained to Reuters and reported by Fox News:

‘”Concussions are a big issue and deserve to be taken seriously, but in my 35 years practicing as an athletic trainer you had four to five times more athletes requiring mental health care than trying to recover from concussions.”

A challenge with detecting and treating mental health issues in high school athletes is broaching concerns without making young people feel stigmatized, said Neal, former head athletic trainer at Syracuse University.

“There is no substitute for just getting to know the players, and paying attention when you see their behavior change so that you can just casually ask them how things are going and keep a dialogue going that makes them feel safe talking about whatever might be going on.”‘

These new guidelines are meant to bring to the table the coaches, school nurses, athletic trainers and parents. All should be made aware of warning signs so that student athletes can be referred for treatment. The mental health issues most commonly observed in student-athletes are depression, substance abuse, bullying and eating disorders.

Signs for parents and family members should watch for…

According to the consensus statement the following items are examples of triggering events or behaviors to monitor:

Triggering Events

  • Poor performance or perceived poor performance by the student-athlete 
  • Conflicts with coaches or teammates 
  • A debilitating injury or illness, resulting in a loss of playing time or
  • Concussions 
  • Class concerns: schedule, grades, amount of work 
  • Lack of playing time 
  • Family and relationship issues 
  • Changes in importance of sport, expectations by self/parents, role
    of sport in life 
  • Violence: being assaulted, a victim of domestic violence,
    automobile accident, or merely witnessing a personal injury or
    assault on a family member, friend, or teammate 
  • Bullying or hazing 
  • Adapting to school schedule 
  • Lack of sleep 
  • History of mental disorder 
  • Burnout from sport or school 
  • Anticipated end of playing career 
  • Sudden end of career due to injury or medical condition 
  • Death of a loved one or close friend 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse 
  • Significant dieting or weight loss 
  • History of physical or sexual abuse 
  • Gambling problems 

Behaviors to Monitor

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits 
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain 
  • Drug or alcohol abuse 
  • Gambling issues 
  • Withdrawal from social contact 
  • Decreased interest in activities that have been enjoyable or taking up
    risky behavior 
  • Talking about death, dying, or ‘‘going away’’ 
  • Loss of emotion or sudden changes of emotion within a short period
    of time 
  • Problems concentrating, focusing, or remembering 
  • Frequent complaints of fatigue, illness, or being injured that prevent
  • Unexplained wounds or deliberate self-harm 
  • Becoming more irritable or having problems managing anger 
  • Irresponsible, lying 
  • Legal concerns, fighting, difficulty with authority 
  • All-or-nothing thinking 
  • Negative self-talk 
  • Feeling out of control 
  • Mood swings 
  • Excessive worry or fear 
  • Agitation or irritability 
  • Shaking, trembling 
  • Gastrointestinal complaints, headaches 
  • Overuse, unresolved, or frequent injuries 

Some closing thoughts…

About 2.2% of the United States population are engaged in high school sports at any given time, this represents a little over 7 million students. If you’re a parent, then you probably appreciate what it’s like to have a child who is actively involved in inter-mural or intra-mural sports programs. It can be football, baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, track, cross country, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, volleyball, tennis, badminton, cheerleading…the list is long. And schedules are busy. Parents often attend practices, games, provide car-pooling, all the while being a supportive parent and a supporting parent. Oftentimes many parents are single parents, so being an active parent can weigh on the family dynamic. Additionally, some parents actively encourage their children to participate in sports with the hope of securing a college scholarship.

HealthDay reported that according to the Consensus Statement: “…about one-fifth of high school students with depression and other mental health problems report high rates of alcohol abuse.

Also, 58 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they’ve experienced problems such as loss of a parent, economic hardship or abuse. And 86 percent of high school students say that some classmates drink, smoke or use drugs during the school day.”

Years ago Maya Angelou said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Sometimes as parents we notice a change in our child and yet we want to think the best and assure ourselves that what we are seeing is a passing phase. Start a conversation with your child…particularly if you know there has been a triggering event or noticed a change in behavior.

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