Why Do High School Athletes Struggle with Mental Health?

Being a high school athlete can look like a dream come true for many teens. They get to participate on a competitive level in an activity they enjoy – often one that they’ve been training for since childhood. Student athletes often enjoy the admiration of their peers and respect from teachers and school officials, as well as their parents’ pride. They attract positive attention on a number of different levels. And on top of that, high-performing athletes can be eligible for college scholarships and other considerations. What’s not to love?

But despite the many benefits, high school athletes aren’t necessarily on top of the world. In fact, depression and other mental health issues are on the rise among teen athletes. What is causing this increase in mental health problems, and how should students, parents, and coaches handle it? Take a look at what you need to know about why high school athletes struggle with mental health.

High School Sports Have Become More Professionalized

Parents and grandparents of high school athletes might remember in their own school days that high school athletes often participated in more than one sport or participated in one sport during its season, then took the other seasons off.

Today’s high school athletes are less likely to participate in multiple sports, and when they zero in on one sport, they don’t necessarily take the other seasons off – they train in the off-season as well, and even join multiple teams so that they can compete year-round. This is happening for a number of reasons. Private clubs and coaches need income year-round, so they lean on the idea that constant training is necessary for athletic success. Parents, who are more involved in their kids’ high school careers than parents in previous generations, have come to believe this as well. High school coaches have begun to adapt college-level training methods, either because they know that turning out student athletes who are recruited by prestigious universities and professional organizations will reflect well on them, or simply because they know they need to encourage more intensity if their athletes are going to keep up with other schools’ athletes.

As a result, student athletes are often overtrained and overtired. High school athletes have a lot to think about – not only are they attempting to compete at high levels athletically, but they’re also trying to keep their grades and test scores at a high level. High school students often have hours of homework a night, and they’re well aware that if they want to make it in college, they also need high grades, high test scores, and a diverse selection of extracurricular activities in addition to their sport. They are also trying to maintain social lives, and many also work after school or summer jobs. No wonder they’re tired. The loss of sleep and overwork may contribute to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Injuries Among High School Athletes Can Be Intense

Trying to do too much for too many hours of the day for too much of the year also makes these athletes more susceptible to injury, which can also contribute to or exacerbate mental illness. When a student athlete sustains a serious injury, they’re suddenly sidelined not only from their sport but also from one of their major support systems.

For teen athletes, their social circle and support network may be largely made up of teammates, coaches, and other people connected with their sport. An injury that takes them out of the competition for a time may also reduce their contact with both peers and adults who previously played a supportive role in their lives. Worse, an injured athlete may feel that they’ve let their teammates down, and the resulting guilt may exacerbate feelings of loneliness and depression.

Teens who experience athletic injuries may also have difficulty adapting to life post-injury. If they can no longer participate in their chosen sport, what can they do? Who are they? A teen who has largely identified as an athlete for years may experience an identity crisis when that sport is taken away from them.

Teens Are Under Intense Pressure

Teen athletes often find themselves under intense pressure to win, even when parents and coaches aren’t necessarily intentionally pressuring them. Participation in most sports is expensive, and teens know when their parents are sacrificing so that they can participate, even if their parents never bring it up. They can put a lot of pressure on themselves to make those sacrifices pay off.

Teens may also recognize when coaches and mentors spend extra time with them, go out of their way to promote them, or make extra allowances for them and feel pressured to live up to perceived expectations because of those actions as well.

And while not all parents or coaches intentionally pressure teens to succeed in sports, some do make the pressure that teens put on themselves even worse by emphasizing the importance of winning at all costs or training to the point of exhaustion. Parents and coaches sometimes place their own deferred dreams and expectations on teenage athletes, expecting the high school athlete to succeed or achieve something that they wish they’d succeeded at or achieved at that age.

Others may believe they’re looking out for the best interest of the teen athletes in their lives by pushing them to do more and win more, possibly because they believe it to be the best way for the athlete to get into a good college or have a good career. But this kind of pressure can backfire – it may be better for teens to know that they have multiple options and that success in a sport isn’t the only way they can succeed in the future.

How to Help Teen Athletes Who Struggle with Mental Health Issues

College athletic programs have begun to add therapists to their athletic departments, educate their athletes and coaches about mental illness, and screen athletes for common mental illnesses like depression. Similar steps may be necessary to help ensure the mental health of high school athletes. Parents, teachers, and coaches should be aware of the pressures and stresses that high school athletes experience and be on the lookout for signs that teen athletes are struggling or have mental health challenges. If you notice signs of a mental health disorder in your teen, seek professional help. Some residential treatment centers have programs specifically for teen athletes who are looking to continue their training while attending to their mental health.