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Depression Runs High Among College Athletes

By Keiana Smith-McDowell, NAMI Communications Intern

A new study suggests that changes in lifestyle and loss of personal identity may put college athletes at an increased risk for depression.

The study, published in Sports Health, was conducted at the Georgetown University Medical Center and revealed depression levels were significantly higher in current college athletes compared to graduated college athletes.

For the study, lead researcher Daniel Merenstein, M.D., and his team examined cross-sectional surveys completed by 117 former and 163 current college athletes who represented nine different universities and participated in Division I NCAA sponsored sports. The former athletes represented 15 different sports, while the current athletes represented 10.

Graduated athletes primarily had played football and baseball while in school and the majority of current athletes who participated in the study played baseball.

The findings showed nearly 17 percent of current athletes had scores consistent with depression compared to only 8 percent of past college athletes.

“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,” said Dr. Merenstein in a university news release

Some of the stressors identified as likely contributing factors to depression included: overtraining, the pressure to deliver peak performance, heavy workload, lack of rest and chronic fatigue.

Another factor shown to be associated with increased depression levels was pain due to injury.

The study also revealed that female college athletes had a higher prevalence of depression than male athletes, which reflect findings of the general population that have shown women are twice as likely to develop depression as men.

Researchers also point out that after college athletics, although the rate of depression is lower, former athletes do not receive the social support from teammates, coaches and advisors, and that former athletes may not be at peak physical condition, which may contribute to an increased likelihood of depression.

“College athletes often derive their personal identity from their sport, focusing a lot of their time on athletics in college,” the study’s authors said.

Dr. Merenstein and his colleagues recognize that college in general is a stressful time for many students. The results of this study call for increased awareness, education, screening, and intervention in college athletes by athletic departments. Awareness of the risk of depression and mental illness should receive a greater emphasis in college athletics.

Dr. Merenstein advises parents, friends and coaches to pay close attention to behavior, weight and sleep of college athletes, and of all students.

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