College athletes more depressed, study says
The aging, depressed former athlete remembering his glory days is a common stereotype. But a new survey suggests that it’s the current athletes who are really struggling.
In fact, current college athletes suffer from depression at more than twice the rate of former athletes.
The study, from Georgetown University Medical Center, surveyed 663 athletes from nine different universities and included 117 current in 10 different sports and 163 former athletes from 15 different sports.
Researchers discovered the opposite of what they anticipated: Nearly 17 percent of the current college athletes had scores consistent with depression, compared to only 8 percent of the retired athletes.
In a statement, Dr. Daniel Merenstein, the study’s senior investigator, said, “We expected to see a significant increase in depression once athletes graduated, but by comparison it appears the stress of intercollegiate athletics may be more significant than we and others anticipated.”
The researchers found the results surprising in part because current college athletes generally have strong relationships with other athletes and coaches and a secure identity as an athlete. They also stay in good physical condition. All of these factors are often cited as ways to prevent depression.
Dr. Ryan Patel, a psychiatrist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill., says that studies like this show that “even if you are living healthy, exercising and have a good support system, high amounts of stress can lead to depressive symptoms.”
Stress and athletics frequently go hand-in-hand. A season-ending injury or physical and verbal abuse from coaches could dishearten even the most upbeat college athlete. But it’s not always such extreme situations that lead to depression.
Dr. Patel says sometimes the amount of training that college athletes put in can create problems. “While there are many studies that show the benefits of exercise, excessive exercise can worsen depression, at times mistakenly characterized as ‘exercise-induced fatigue,’” he says. “The relationship between exercise and brain health is such that either too much or too little exercise can be problematic.”
The Georgetown study points out that injuries, pressure to perform, lack of free time, and balancing sports with school work are other stressors that current college athletes face, often leading to depressive symptoms.
The study’s findings suggest a need for further research to better understand the depression some college athletes face. In the meantime, study author Dr. Merenstein recommends that parents, coaches and friends of student athletes watch for changes in behavior, weight and sleep patterns that might indicate depression.
Learn more about information on Advocate Health Care’s mental health services.
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