Did you know that about 1 in 4 Americans will experience a mental disorder in any given year?
To put that number into perspective, take a look at just how many American adults are affected by some of the most common mental health concerns today.
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): 16.6 million
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): 15 million
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): 7.7 million
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): 6.8 million
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): 2.2 million
It’s undeniable that the mental health crisis in America is growing at epidemic-like rates across the board. But there are certain groups hit particularly harder than others.
Such is the case with collegiate student-athletes.
Student-athletes are undoubtedly overloaded with stress—there’s the obsessive desire to stay fit and at the top of your game, an ingrained need to make a name for yourself, an insane academic workload that you just can’t keep up with, and limited access to mental health care.
So, just how severe has this problem become in recent years? And, what can reasonably be done about this growing issue?
We’re about to go over 15 student-athlete mental health statistics and the severity of each.
Table of Contents
Mental Health Treatment & Suicide
- Of the 1 in 3 college students that show signs of anxiety or depression, 30% will seek treatment and only 10% of college student-athletes will do the same.
- NCAA athletes are more likely to suffer psychological problems that require treatment as compared to their peers, accounting for 10 to 15% of all college athletes.
- Over 477 student-athletes have died from suicide in the last decade alone.
- One study found that, of the student-athletes that died over 9 years, about 7.3% of deaths (35 student-athletes) were a result of suicide.
To say that these statistics are alarming would be a massive understatement. And, it begs the question, “Why are so many student-athletes overwhelmingly turning to suicide?”
Well, there are a few possible explanations for this.
Sports like football, hockey, and soccer are usually considered “contact sports” because of the risk of impact and injury with other players and equipment.
And, taking enough hard hits to the head can lead to repeated concussions.
Concussions can lead to brain injuries and even CTE, a condition where you enter a stage of early dementia. CTE is linked to suicidal thoughts, particularly in football players (mostly NFL).
Now, CTE isn’t common in college athletes, but brain injuries aren’t unheard of among students.
Alcohol & Drug Abuse
It’s quite clear that most college campuses are overrun by drugs, alcohol, and parties.
But, just going to these parties isn’t the problem. The real issue is the culture that comes with college athletics, involving parties and hazing, and that college-aged kids lack self-control.
Too much alcohol consumption can lead to a reduction in serotonin within the body, something is normally seen in depressed patients.
Add the lack of serotonin to impaired thinking processes from alcohol and you’ll understand while those who drink to excess are 60 times more likely to die by suicide.
Most college athletes began playing their sport of choice before they even entered elementary school. And, many begin to build their identity around the sport and their role as an athlete.
But, college is the time many athletes realize it’s the end of the road on the field. Just look at the data: Of nearly 74,000 college football players, only 254 will be drafted to the NFL.
This can lead to a loss of identity and can be crushing to those who saw themselves going pro. There was no backup plan, which ultimately can lead to suicide.
Anxiety & Depression
5. About 85% of athletic trainers state that the student-athletes they oversee are impacted by anxiety directly.
7. The magnitude of anxiety and depression in collegiate athletes has grown exponentially over the last decade.
8. One study found that over 21% of college athletes believe that they have depression.
9. Approximately 23.7% of college athletes seem to meet the clinical criteria for depression.
10. Another study discovered that over 20% of college athletes had depression.
11. About 16.77% of current college athletes showed signs of depression, with rates dropping to about 8.03% post-graduation.
12. Of college students that have suffered from injuries, about 51% ended up developing depression—this is even more severe in injured or struggling student-athletes who are nearing graduation.
College is simply a time in our lives that’s full of stress coming from every angle….the school work, the practices, the games, the clubs, the social gatherings, and more.
It can all be a little too much mentally.
Here are some possible reasons that college student-athletes experience anxiety and depression more often than their peers.
- A desire to be the best (to keep a scholarship or see playing time as opposed to casual student exercise)
- Knowing other players on the team can easily replace you in your position
- Lack of sleep and time to relax
- Fear of what your coaches, teammates, and fans think
- What your future holds (Will you go pro? Or, will you join the workforce?)
- A fear that you’ll lose your athletic scholarship
What’s most interesting is who seems to be impacted most: Retiring student-athletes.
To understand why you have to think about what these students are giving up when they finally graduate and enter the real world.
The relationship they built with their teammates will suddenly be gone.
Their schedules won’t be as rigid and there’s less to look forward to day-to-day.
Their source of pride and feeling successful will be snatched from them.
In a way, they’ve become just like everybody else. And, that can be a lot for people that spent their lives on the field and performing in front of crowds.
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13. Eating disorders in females are more common among college athletes, with about 8% of female athletes experiencing bulimia and another 1.5% dealing with anorexia.
14. The National Eating Disorder Association states that more than 1 in 3 female student-athletes have anorexia nervosa.
15. More than 33% of Division 1 student-athletes are at risk for developing anorexia.
In the athletic world, eating disorders aren’t so much about losing weight to like what you see in the mirror. The emphasis ends up being, “What can I do to improve my athletic performance?”
There are a few sports where eating disorders show up most.
Gymnastics & Dance
This is the sport most people think of when they hear about eating disorders. And, just think about why that is.
You’re performing in front of a panel of judges and need to look good. Also, every pound matters and can be detrimental to your form on even the easiest of moves.
Even worse is the fact that these disorders begin young in gymnasts. Many will begin cutting their diet before puberty to maintain a short stature and thin physique (delaying puberty).
One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that they only impact women.
Yes, wrestlers need to be strong. They need to hit the gym, put up impressive numbers in their bench press, squat, and deadlift relative to their bodyweight to stay in elite fighting shape.
But, they also need to weigh within a few pounds of whatever weight class their coach tells them they’re wrestling at the next match.
Many wrestlers will cut 10+ pounds in a week to make it to the desired weight class.
But, it’s also important to point out that these unhealthy eating habits extend well past the wrestling season.
It’s not uncommon for wrestlers to pack on 20+ pounds in the few weeks after the season ends. This takes the eating disorder to another extreme: Binge eating disorder.
How many student-athletes have mental health issues?
Studies show that about 6.3% of all student-athletes show signs and symptoms of depression. At institutions like Kean University and Drexel University specifically, about 1 in 4 of all student-athletes met the criteria for a depression diagnosis.
What percent of student-athletes are stressed?
Stress is an overwhelming factor in the lives of many student-athletes. Up to 10% of student-athletes reported feeling tremendous stress, particularly due to the mental and physical exhaustion that comes from playing sports competitively.
What causes stress in athletes?
Just about any factor can cause significant stress in student-athletes in America. These common stressors include unrealistic expectations put upon them, excessive time demands of practices and games, disheartening feedback by coaches and teammates, and an inability to accept failure or loss. It may also come from a lack of outside encouragement, having an unclear role within a team, and punishments for perceived failures.
Let’s get one thing straight: Without your mental health, you have nothing.
There’s no desire to go to the gym or eat healthy to gain muscle mass. You won’t even have it in you to hang out with your friends, show up to work, and sometimes, shower in the morning.
And, it can kill you.
The best thing you can do when you notice you’re struggling mentally is to open up to somebody close to you and then schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.
Seriously, it’s okay to admit that you’re struggling and need help. It doesn’t make you weak or a burden in any sense….it actually shows that you’re strong enough to ask for help.
If you or somebody you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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