The Invisible Opponent: Are Our College Athletes Losing to Depression?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Donna Davis, PhD, University of Oregon

While there’s no doubt that they work very hard, the life of an elite college athlete can also look pretty glamorous at times. During their college years, these students may get a lot of attention on campus and enjoy special privileges and opportunities.

With this in mind, researchers writing in a journal of sports health recently set out to learn more about the mental health of former collegiate athletes. The researchers wondered if losing the positives of athletics participation, like strong social support from teammates and coaches and the health benefits of frequent exercise, might lead to problems after graduation. To find out, they compared depression symptoms among recently graduated Division I college athletes to depression symptoms among current athletes. Over 250 athletes and former athletes completed surveys. Slightly less than half were female.

But to the researchers’ surprise, the current athletes’ responses were much more of a cause for concern. In fact, about 17% reported symptoms consistent with a medical diagnosis of depression, while only about 8% of former athletes fell into this category. The average depression score was also notably higher among current athletes.

So what could be behind these findings? The authors believe that pressure to perform and a heavy workload can lead to stress, exhaustion, and burn-out for these highly celebrated but hardworking young athletes. Injuries and pain can also take a toll on mental health over time.

While this study was small and preliminary, the authors suggest that parents, coaches, and university personnel keep an eye out for depression and signs of stress among college athletes so that these young people can stay happy and successful, both on and off the field. Although the life of a college athlete may be high in excitement, it seem it could also have invisible costs—something to keep in mind for those close to the men and women who make game day so fun for the rest of us.

(Photo credit: GT v UNC 2009 by Hector Alejandro. CC BY 2.0.)

Further Reading

Signs and Symptoms of Depression: from UF-IFAS EDIS


Weigand, S., Cohen, J., & Merenstein, D. (2013). Susceptibility for depression in current and retired student athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Advance online publication.

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). Depression among college athletes. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.)


Posted: May 2, 2014

Category: Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Health And Wellness, Mental Health

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