Depressive Symptoms Common Among College Athletes

Nearly one in four college athletes reported symptoms of depression while enrolled at a liberal arts university on the East Coast, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Women were almost twice as likely as men to experience depressive symptoms with female track and field athletes having the highest rates overall.

“There is a perception among some people that athletes are immune to or at a decreased risk for depression. Our experience treating college athletes led us to believe that was not true, but there were very few studies to support either argument,” said study leader Eugene Hong, M.D., associate dean for primary care and community health at the Drexel University College of Medicine.

“This study shows that the rates of depression among athletes are probably comparable to rates in the general college population. And it highlights the need for increased mental health screening for athletes as part of standard sports medicine care.”

The study, conducted by researchers at Drexel University and Kean University, looked at over three years’ worth of data from 465 undergraduate athletes who attended a NCAA Division I private university. The research is one of the largest to date to focus on depression in college athletes.

While previous studies have focused mainly on specific sports or genders, the new study examined whether the prevalence of symptoms varied between gender and across nine different sports: baseball/softball, basketball, cheerleading, crew, field hockey, lacrosse, track and field, soccer, and tennis.

During their annual sports medicine physicals, the athletes completed anonymous surveys that asked questions about their mood, appetite, attention, relationships, and sleep habits. Based on the responses, the student athletes were screened for depression using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD).

The findings show that nearly 24 percent of the 465 athletes reported a “clinically relevant” level of depressive symptoms, and 6 percent reported moderate to severe symptoms. Across all sports, female athletes had a significantly higher prevalence rate for depressive symptoms than men, 28 percent compared to 18 percent.

Female track and field athletes had the highest rates of clinically relevant depressive symptoms —¬†38 percent, or more than one out of three —¬†making them two times more likely than other athletes to have symptoms. At 12 percent, male lacrosse players had the lowest prevalence of clinically relevant depressive symptoms.

While student-athletes may be active and surrounded by a strong support system, they may also experience a number of unique stressors, such as high-pressure expectations and injuries, said study co-author Andrew Wolanin, Psy.D., director of the Department of Advanced Studies in Psychology at Kean.

“Student-athletes face pressure, and there is lot of opportunity for failure, which can be a key component of depression,” he said. “They are expected to succeed, but many underperform once they get to college.”

The researchers note that a number of factors could have contributed to differences in depressive symptoms by sport. For example, since the researchers only surveyed athletes from a single institution, the findings could have been specific to particular teams.

Another consideration is that “different personality types may engage in different sports, and that these choices are related to divergent forms of pathology,” they write. “Differences in social support factors between more individualized sports and team sports may also contribute to discrepancies in depression rates.”

Given these findings, Hong said health care professionals who treat student-athletes for injury should also pay attention to their patients’ mental well-being. While a growing number of college students are seeking help at mental health services, athletes may be less likely to do so due to time constraints and social stigma.

Since the study identifies groups that may be at higher risk for depression, the findings could also help clinicians target high-risk athletes for intervention, Hong said. In the future, the researchers hope to study other potential risk factors for depression among college athletes, including concussions and injuries.

Source: Drexel University

Depressed athelete photo by shutterstock.