Depression in Athletes, Their Silent Battle Off the Field

From Youth to Retirement, Athletes are Discussing Their Struggles with Depression

The World of Sports, America’s most celebrated pastime and universal language extending beyond gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity, education and income. We’ve grown to admire athletes for their determination, perseverance, physical strength, speed, and endurance. We look to these super-heroic individuals as role models and sources of inspiration, and in return, these stoics are fiercely compelled to not let their fans, teammates or coaches down. Strong and fearless they may be; however, athletes can and do suffer with depression. Depression is a serious medical illness affecting more than 14 million Americans each year. It is a condition which lasts two or more weeks and interferes with a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks and enjoyed activities that previously brought pleasure.

Former University of Michigan Defensive Lineman (2007-2011) and honors graduate, Will Heininger publically discussed the most challenging battle he’s had to fight, and it wasn’t on the field. “I had emotional pain that was overwhelming; I would wake up, and from morning until I fell asleep—when I was able to sleep – I had troubling thoughts that were utterly consuming. Not a minute would go by in a day without my depression on my mind… this, this felt impossible.”2 After receiving treatment for his depression, Heininger returned to his alma mater to help develop Athletes Connected, a pioneering program that educates students in identifying mental issues amongst their peers and offers athletes access to mental health resources.3

Contributing Factors Leading to Depression in College Athletes

  • Over-training
  • Heavy workload
  • The pressure to deliver peak performance
  • Lack of rest/sleep
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Injuries

Heininger is not alone in his struggle with depression nor with his efforts to bring wide-spread awareness. More and more collegiate and professional athletes as well as former Olympians are publically discussing their struggles with depression, thus giving voice and support to what has traditionally been a silent suffering amongst athletes. Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall also speaks openly about his personal struggle with mental illness. Marshall has gone public in an effort to …”break the stigma… and it starts with creating the conversation.” Depression not only afflicts young athletes, but retired NFL players have been increasingly sited in the media with stories of struggles with depression and tragically, several reported suicides.

A survey of 1,600 members of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) reports that 15% of retired football players experience moderate to severe depression, most of which do not seek medical help due to fear of being unfairly judged as weak.1 A growing body of research is showing a significant correlation between concussion and depression, and individuals having sustained concussions as young adults may be at an even higher risk for developing depression.6 NFL players who have a history of concussion suffer with depression at a rate almost three times greater than the general population.7 This research and clinical studies are linking depression with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated head trauma. CTE affects a person’s cognitive functioning and ability to manage emotions. With the expanding awareness of CTE and depression, an increasing number of active and retired players are seeking professional treatment.

Dwight Hollier, former linebacker with the Miami Dolphins, also struggled with post-career depression. He now runs a mental health assistance program for current and former players and their family members.8 Once retired, Hollier explained, “I didn’t know what to do. I sulked. I withdrew. I isolated myself. I just kind of went into a hole. I didn’t reach out. There’s a stigma with men, with macho men, with athletes, about help-seeking behavior. But I think having conversations and opening up the dialogue has lowered that resistance, and people are reaching out. People are getting the assistance that they need.”9

Whether affected by the rigors of the sport or the emptiness of its cessation; whether affected by traumatic brain injury or suffering with chronic pain, athletes are not impervious to depression. With the recent surge of athletes publicly discussing their depression, more programs nationwide are being created to specifically assist athletes, both active and retired, in identifying and treating mental illness. Kudos to the intrepid men and women who are sharing their personal struggles with depression. Their profound conversations are helping to engender a culture of acceptance and support of those silently suffering with mental illness.

  6. Neurology Reviews. 2013 June; 21(6):1, 32.
  7. Neurology Reviews. 2013 June; 21(6):1, 32.

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