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Mental Health
| May 15, 2024

Mental Health: Recognizing the Signs That May Require Help

By Rebecca Schumer and Liz Hollenczer | Photo by John Strohsacker

While advocacy regarding mental health should be year-round, May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a great reminder to athletes of all ages to prioritize mental wellness. From youth athletes to Olympians like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, discussing mental health in athletics has become an increasingly valuable part of sport performance and overall well-being.

Athletes in all sports face unique mental health challenges that can significantly impact their well-being and performance. It is essential to help athletes recognize these challenges, be aware of the resources available, understand common conditions experienced, and seek tools to help achieve psychological wellness.

As an athlete, you should understand that it is normal to face challenges from within and outside sport that could impact your mental health. From the pressure to perform to dealing with unexpected injuries, as well as simply navigating life’s obligations like family, school, work, and relationships, it can all take a toll.

The key is recognizing when an athlete needs help managing these challenges. By identifying and seeking appropriate support, we can minimize the likelihood of issues growing and requiring more time off from sport and school. 

Injuries of any magnitude are hugely impactful events for an athlete. Whether short- or long-term, sustaining an injury can keep an athlete on the sideline and prevent them from spending time with their team. All athletes may not be equipped to manage time away from sport. The unknowns of returning to their previous performance level and the length of time needed for recovery can weigh heavily.

For some athletes, it’s not uncommon to experience sadness, anger, and frustration when going through this hard time, and these emotions can negatively impact the life of an athlete who is already dealing with the physical challenges of injury. Acknowledging potential struggles throughout injury and rehabilitation and seeking out assistance can be a key piece in both overall mental health and staying on course for physical recovery.

Recognizing the signs that an athlete is struggling is crucial for providing timely support. Here are some common signs to watch out for:

Changes in behavior, sleep or eating patterns.
● Performance decline in sport or school/work.
● Physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, etc.
● Emotional distress.
● Substance use.
● Isolation.
● Lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities.
● Low self-esteem.
● Risk-taking behavior.

This list is not meant to be diagnostic or all-encompassing, but rather serves to raise awareness of potential red flags that you or your athlete may exhibit when dealing with a mental health issue. It's important to note that these signs may vary depending on the individual and the context, and may not always indicate a mental health concern. However, if you notice several of these signs persisting over time, it may be a good idea to encourage the athlete to seek support from a mental health professional or counselor. 

Some common conditions experienced by athletes include anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and burnout. It is worth noting that athletes may be struggling with mental health problems that, while unrelated to sport, are negatively impacting their performance. By reaching out to qualified mental health providers, athletes can be more accurately diagnosed and receive individualized improvement strategies. 

Many tools exist to optimize mental health and have been shown to be effective for both those dealing with a particular mental health concern and athletes who are looking to step up their mental performance. Some common strategies recommended by professionals that can help improve mental health include: 

● Mindfulness and meditation.
● Goal setting.
● Prioritizing sleep, nutrition and hydration.
● Imagery.
● Journaling.

Mental health is a critical pillar of an athlete's overall well-being and athletic success. By recognizing the challenges they face, utilizing available resources, addressing common conditions, and implementing tools for optimal mental health, we can better support young athletes in their athletic journey. 

For more Mental Health Awareness Month content from MedStar Health and the National Alliance of Mental Illness, check out some of the “Let's Get Physical (Therapy)” podcasts and other resources below.

● Podcast: It's Okay to Not be Okay
● Podcast: Navigating the Road to Recovery Through Physical Therapy and Mental Health
● Podcast: Debunking Stigma & Myths of Mental Health
● NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) -
● NAMI Team and Young Adult Hotline – Call 1-800-950-6264 or Text “62640”
● Suicide Hotline: Call “988”

Rebecca Schumer, PT, DPT, and Liz Hollenczer, MS, LAT, ATC, CES serve as health care professionals with MedStar Health, a proud partner of USA Lacrosse and the trusted medical provider with many of the Mid-Atlantic region’s professional sports teams.