Identifying Mental Health Concerns in High School Athletes

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Mental health issues can affect athletes at all levels, even those in high school.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete ever, should have been happy. He had fame, fortune, and a string of awards and record-breaking performances. He was on the cover of magazines. But his success hid a dark secret.

He wasn’t able to deal with his depression and thoughts of suicide, he told USA Today, until his family and friends urged him to seek professional help.

Mental health issues can affect athletes at all levels. Interscholastic athletic administrators, whose responsibility includes overseeing the goals of a successful sports program, should understand the importance of supporting high school athletes and their mental health. They should also be aware of the causes and warning signs of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health difficulties among young athletes.

A master’s in athletic administration online can offer the tools and knowledge of sports management terminology to work with these issues in an athletic department. By utilizing proper protocols, athletic directors and their staff can ensure that student-athletes get the help they need before their symptoms develop further.

Warning Signs

An estimated 31.9% of today’s young people experience some form of anxiety disorder, according to “Challenges of Mental-health Issues in High School Athletics” on the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) website.

Nationwide, studies show that one in five people age 18 and over experiences a form of mental illness. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those age 10 to 24, with nearly 4,700 young people dying of suicide annually in the United States, according to USA Today High School Sports.

Injuries, emotional stress, and physical strain can put student-athletes at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts than their non-athletic peers.

The pressure to succeed can lead athletes to put sports goals and expectations ― especially winning ― above their other needs, increasing the difficulty of discussing more significant issues with their coaches and mentors.

“Passion around a chosen activity, connection to caring adults, striving for personal goals, and meeting high expectations are ingredients for great triumphs or stumbling blocks which, all too often, can provoke anxiety and depression,” the NFHS article notes. Many student-athletes, it adds, “relishing the positive feedback, rewards of immediate success, and attention of a coach may feel pressured to stay in the athletic performance-focused part of the coach-athlete relationship, hiding the ways in which they are struggling and in need of emotional and mental support.”

According to the article, warning signs include:

  • Drugs
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Divorce or separation in the home
  • Financial stresses
  • Physical injuries
  • Team demotion
  • Pressures for unrealistic expectations
  • Suicidal thoughts

Starting the Conversation

Early detection is key to identifying psychological concerns and determining whether student-athletes can benefit from talking with coaches, trainers, school nurses, or school counselors or if they need help from a licensed mental health professional.

Athletic administrators across the country are addressing mental wellness in a variety of ways. Some programs have initiated online wellness checks that let student-athletes submit their experiences with sleep problems, diet concerns, injuries, and mental health issues.

Oregon’s Redmond School District developed a Student-Athlete Development (SAD) program, notes the NFHS article, which was authored by Kevin Bryant, Redmond’s district athletic director, and certified athletic trainer Cari Wood.

Since the loss of one of the district’s three-sport athletes to suicide a few years ago, athletic administrators and coaches have become “more attuned to athletes’ moods, attitudes, family challenges, and potential substance abuse issues,” the article notes.

The SAD program focuses on four key areas of mental health:

  • Mental skills training
  • Emotional/mental health
  • Physical improvement
  • Academic responsibility and success

From hosting mental health awareness nights to team talks, athletic administrators are encouraging coaches and teammates to understand how to recognize and address psychological issues.

“The most important goal is to help build strong and resilient young men and women who will be ready for all of the challenges of life during and after high school,” Bryant and Wood write. “We do not want to lose another student to suicide because the signs were not recognized, or no one knew where to turn for help.”

Beyond the Field

To help ease the pressure, some experts suggest introducing a broader base of students into high school athletic programs. The purpose is to rethink the idea that only the most talented athletes should participate.

“Foster opportunities for those who use wheelchairs or prostheses (being the team manager or timer doesn’t replace a legitimate chance to train and compete),” says William W. Dexter, MD & Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D. in “Athletic Business.” “Let’s shift the norm from crowds watching a handful of gladiators to a culture in which physical activity ― through sports, exercise, or the activities of daily living ― is a way of life at every age.”

Opening high school athletic programs to a wider variety of students offers benefits long after the athletes graduate. Studies show that young people who engage in physical activity during their high school years tend to sustain their physical ― and mental ― health in the future.

About Ohio University’s Master of Athletic Administration Online

Ohio University’s Online MAA program can offer sports professionals the skills to recognize mental health issues among student-athletes and develop policies and programs that can help young people succeed.

The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s Online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring its dedication to providing world-class sports business education. For more information, contact Ohio University’s MAA program representatives now.

Recommended Reading

The Importance of Professional Development for Athletic Directors

Athletic Directors: Planning for the Season

Fighting for Diversity & Inclusion in Interscholastic Sports


When Athletes Share their Battles with Mental Illness: USA TODAY

Reducing Risk in Sports: Suicide Ideation is a Public Health Problem that may also Affect Athletes: USA TODAY High School Reports

Challenges of Mental-Health Issues in High School: National Federation of State High School Associations

Criticism of High School Sports Raises Important Issues – But Sometimes Wrong Conclusions: Athletic Business