When it comes to youth and sports, intensity seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Rampant pressure coupled with hectic schedules and little down time for rest and reflection can create an environment of high stress. As such, the mental health needs of student athletes have become a real concern.
Dr. Deepak Prabhakar serves as medical director of outpatient services at Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and specializes in sport psychiatry; he is certified by both the National Football League and Major League Baseball. His goal is to address athletes’ mental health needs so that players as well as their teams are better served.
Washington FAMILY asked Prabhakar about youth sports and mental health concerns.
Are today’s athletes under more pressure or are we just more attuned to it now and better prepared to recognize it?
It’s a multifactorial issue. First, participation in sports and almost elite-level performance expectations are being tied to a promise of scholarships and admissions to higher-level education.
Second, we live in the day and age of data analytics; for every level, we now have access to performance data that is being shared widely. This has inadvertently led to performance pressures in younger athletes, thereby moving the focus away from joy and camaraderie to competitive advantage.
Third, social media has enabled individuals to express themselves in ways that were previously unknown or not possible. For example, someone may be physically isolated, yet able to communicate their thoughts and feelings with hundreds and thousands on a social media platform. Hence, we are now aware of something that previously would have gone unnoticed.
Are teams today becoming more likely to address mental health issues?
With growing appreciation of mental health issues and their negative impact on overall health, society is paying relatively more attention to an athlete’s emotional state now compared to the past. Teams are trying to address these issues; however, the outcomes are highly variable depending upon the openness of the stakeholders and available resources. Unfortunately, stigma and disjointed health care continues to impede progress.
Are some activities higher risk for kids who may be more vulnerable to anxiety or depression?
Athletes are representative of the general population. Some sports have more of a risk of physical injury, thereby increasing the risk of mental health sequela. However, there is no one sport that can be identified as particularly stressful. It is important to understand that the individual and the surroundings can affect the stress level. If done right, sports participation should be a net positive for an individual.
Do student-athletes feel more pressure from peers, from coaches or from themselves?
Student-athletes feel pressure from all of the above. Just like they can be motivated from within and from their peers, coaches and family, they can also feel pressured to perform a certain way by all of these.
What are the signs of distress to look for? And what sort of actions should we take if we see warning signs?
Isolation, lack of interest, missing practices, bodily symptoms right before performance, drug/alcohol use, poor sleep and poor nutrition choices are some of the warning signs. If you see any of these signs, you should seek professional help, leading to appropriate and timely diagnosis and management
How can we foster good mental health from the start?
By focusing on the overall growth and development needs of an individual rather than looking at sports through the solitary lens of performance outcomes. A key point for parents to remember is that participation in sports should be a matter of joy not only for the student athlete, but for the family as well.
How does involvement in sports present positive opportunities for good mental health in young athletes?
Participating in sports can offer opportunities for physical activity, positive and age-appropriate social engagement, sense of belonging, responsibility and accountability to self and others, planning and executive-function skills. All of these foster mental health and overall wellness.
By Courtney McGee