Student-athletes are not immune to mental health disorders, like depression and eating disorders, and they have to cope with just as much, or more, stress than the average student. In 2013, nearly 50% of college students sought help for mental health concerns. Seeking help from a coach or professional for any mental or physical health concerns does not make student-athletes weak or inept and can result in beneficial treatment or management techniques.


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Stress and Depression

Student-athletes experience a unique set of stressful triggers: the pressure to succeed, the need to be a master at scheduling and time management, and the always present possibility of injuries, to name a few. Outside of their sports, student-athletes may also experience trouble with their professors, struggles to get along with other students or in romantic relationships, the fight to make it to all of their classes, and all of the anxiety that goes hand in hand with being a “normal” college student. These can all contribute to clinical depression.

How prevalent is depression in athletes?

A partner study between Drexel and Kean University found that NCAA Division I female athletes are nearly twice as likely to be depressed than male athletes at the same level, but that overall the levels of depression in athletes are similar to the rates of depression of the college population as a whole. Both male and female track and field participants have the highest prevalence of depression (37% of females and 25% of males), followed by female soccer players (30%) and baseball players (18%).

What exactly is depression?

There is a difference between depression and a general feeling of being down in the dumps, but neither is pleasant. Unlike a sad mood, however, depression isn’t always linked to a specific cause, and it often persists for weeks at a time. Many doctors and researchers believe that depression is linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can be hereditary. If you think you are experiencing depression, it’s not your fault, but it’s important to talk with someone (a doctor, a counselor, a coach) about what you’re feeling. For more information about depression, click here.

There is a correlation between depression and suicide, which makes depression all the more serious. Students who are thinking about suicide often talk about feelings of hopelessness or express the desire to end their lives. If a student, friend, or teammate displays these symptoms, the risk should be taken very seriously and reported to a coach, health professional, or trusted adult. You can find more information about suicidal thoughts here.

If you need help now, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8225) at any time of day to speak to a mental health specialist.

How can depression affect an athlete?

Depression interferes with enjoyment and happiness. Many people who suffer from depression say that they no longer feel fulfilled by doing the things they used to love. For athletes, that can mean they’re no longer passionate about their sports, among their other pastimes, interests, and hobbies.

When a student is depressed or upset, his or her athletic performance can suffer, leading to further anxiety about performance. This, in turn, can cause injuries; a student who is anxious or overthinking may be more prone to miss a step or be less aware of their surroundings on the field. Once injured, a previously strong athlete may have to sit out for a certain amount of time, though still be required to come to all games and practices. This, then, can lead to further depression. Watching teammates and coaches interact while sitting on the sidelines is yet another trigger. It’s a vicious cycle, and every part of it can deal another blow to an athlete’s self-esteem.

How can depression be managed?

Stress and depression can both be managed in a variety of ways: maintaining a regular sleep schedule, practicing yoga or mindfulness, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, talking to loved ones or a therapist, and committing to fewer activities. If these techniques are not possible or not working for you, talk to a doctor; he or she may suggest trying to manage your depression with medication. If stress and depression are related to an injury, remember, bones heal and muscles repair themselves. Even though it takes time, you will have a chance to return to the playing field. Student Caffé’s section on health and wellness has articles on both depression and suicidal thoughts where you can learn more about symptoms, diagnoses, treatments, how to help a friend or loved one who may be in trouble, and the resources available to anyone who needs help.

Eating Disorders

Part of whether an individual will develop an eating disorder comes down to genetics, but being an athlete can also increase a student’s risk. Student-athletes who are required to maintain a certain weight for competition may be more susceptible than others. The main eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (a combination of the three other disorders but not specifically one over another). Male athletes are most commonly diagnosed with a nonspecific disorder or binge eating disorder, but eating disorders are not sex-specific. Any athlete, male or female, can be affected by any disease.

How do eating disorders typically affect female athletes?

Student-athletes, females in particular, may be at a higher risk for developing eating disorders than the general public. Lean physiques are emphasized in many sports: gymnastics, swimming, cross country, and track and field, for example. Throw in uniforms that show off plenty of skin, like bathing suits and volleyball shorts, and it’s no wonder that student-athletes may be susceptible to body image issues. Over 40% of female athletes who participate in sports that stress the importance of being thin exhibit some form of disordered eating. Female athletes also deal with another sort of double standard. Their athletic, toned, and muscular bodies are great for their sports, but may not be “feminine enough” to fit society’s expectations about what a woman should look like. Taken together, these (combined with possible genetic factors) put female athletes uniquely at risk for developing eating disorders.

While some women who hope to meet body ideals are susceptible to exercise bulimia (instead of physically purging their food, they work out excessively to burn off the calories instead), others may be susceptible to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa; bulimia is more prevalent than anorexia in women.

How do eating disorders affect male athletes?

Nationwide, men account for up to 10% of cases of anorexia. Nearly half of these men play sports and must control their weight or maintain their body fat percentages in order to perform well, like in wrestling, cross country, and diving. Like women, men are also pummeled with societal expectations of the ideal man: one who is thin and toned, with very little body fat but lots of muscle.

Both the drive to succeed athletically and outside pressures from society can contribute to anorexia in male athletes. Men may also be more susceptible to muscle dysmorphia, which is often considered the opposite of anorexia. It involves a focused desire to gain muscle. These student-athletes may add extra protein to their diets, drink nutrition shakes, take dietary supplements, and exercise compulsively.

How can I help my teammates or friends?

It can be hard to identify student-athletes with eating disorders, especially if they participate in a sport in which thin is the normal body type. So what do you do if you suspect that you or a teammate might be suffering from an eating disorder? Speak up. Encourage your friend to visit a doctor, or schedule a visit for yourself. Talk to your coach and your circle of friends. Realizing that there is a problem is the first step, but without treatment or therapy, the disease is likely to get worse. Once an effort has been made to control the illness, resuming athletic activity may be an option. Fortunately, there are a host of resources out there that offer treatment help, on campus and beyond.

Page last updated: 10/2017