Mental health issues within all sports are important to address. Like a person's physical attributes, mental health alters throughout life. Recognising a mental illness, such as depression, in athletes is of utmost importance. 1 in 4 people in the U.K can be affected by mental health issues such as depression or anxiety so educating athletes and coaches about its effects is vital. Athletes are no different to anyone else and the pressure of media, peers, success, competing, training and winning can all contribute to a depressive state.
Depression in athletes is now less stigmatised in the public arena, with more sportsmen and women speaking out or correctly asking for help like Marcus Trescothick or Dame Kelly Holmes. There are now organisations and sports psychologists set up to help either part time, full time or immediately accessible within a sport.
Signs of Depression in Athletes:
Performances from athletes with mental illness can drop or alter in both competition and training. Skillset can also change due to tiredness and decreased concentration. Performances can drop over time and also in some athletes is associated with a more aggressive nature in team sports that could result in issues with the officials.
Fatigue, illness, injury or failing to recover
The athlete being more susceptible to injury or an increase in illness with days off are signs of depression. The athlete might start seeing the health professional more, either at the place of employment, or outside if trying to hide the problem. Fatigue can also cause injuries or illness and an increase in masseur appointments or failing to properly recover day to day with adequate training loads can be signs of a mental health problem. If an athlete is injured or undergoing rehabilitation and not competing they are at an increased risk of becoming depressed. This could potentially make the injury take longer to heal and so the athlete needs to be looked after during this time.
Decreased interest in activities
Athletes with depression can become less interested in training or extra skills they require to perform. They may start turning up late or going straight away post the activity, insted of getting feedback and looking at analysis of other teams or their opposition individually. They may also have decreased focus on the exercise and/or withdraw socially. They may talk less about the activity they are doing and some even quit the sport entirely.
Withdrawal from social contact – quietness
When the athlete can be seen to be less outgoing than their teammates, and withdraws from contact socially, it's a common sign of clinical depression. The person becomes more isolated than normal and becomes reclusive at times. This isolation and quietness may be when they are with their peers or other athletes, or alternatively around family and friends.
Change in personality or habits – more irritable
Depression can be associated with more anger and violence in some cases. Frustration in athletes can occur with themselves, teammates or staff and are signs of a mental health problem. Irritability can be at the place of activity or outside. The athlete in some cases may cry more or alternatively look and act act flat or be a different persona altogether. In some cases the person may even self-harm and wear clothes to cover this up, or talk about death or dying. Athletes' normal habits can alter with depression and more isolation is usually a sign.
Change in sleeping or eating habits
Sleep times and quality is often monitored in athletes, with well-being questionnaires commonly done. A change in sleeping habits could include regular naps between sessions and sometimes an athlete finding a corner more regularly to sleep during the day. An increased look of tiredness and reduced concentration can also be signs of depression. Sometimes the athlete starts eating more on their own and weight losses or gains can be seen. These all affect performance in both training and competition.
Depression can cause difficulty in remembering or concentrating in meetings, during their activity or performance, and in everyday life. The athlete may also find it difficult to express or focus on what they are required to do. Their mind could wander whilst someone is talking to them. Concussion (traumatic brain injury) or a history of concussion can also cause reduced concentration levels and impair emotional state, and so people suffering with this injury should be monitored for depression.
Drinking habits can change with depression and some athletes may start drinking or drink more excessively and frequently. Athletes may even find an isolated place to drink, but as alcohol affects overall performance, there may be an issue with this in training or competition. Drug use can also be a sign that the athlete is depressed. Although this is usually picked up by anti-doping organizations, the athlete may not have been tested when the drug was in their system. With alcohol and drugs, teammates or other peers may notice a change in the person, or notice a covering or hiding approach.
It is important to recognize a mental illness issue and get help. Speaking out, as many top athletes have done with their experiences, will stop the stigma attached. Mental wellbeing is important and it is the role of all supporting staff, peers, family, and friends to manage and aid an athlete before, during and post their activity or their career. Things like injury fear or what to do when retirement comes can create a depressive state and alter emotions and should be addressed with the athlete. Mental health training and programs are set up within some academy teams as part of their education. Feeling able to speak out or ask for help should be ingrained in all. It is important to recognise the signs or behavior changes and if depression is thought to be present, a mental health professional should be sought to help.