By Katherine Schreiber

Exercise can be a miraculous helper in managing depression, lowering anxiety, improving fatigue levels and boosting cognition. But this doesn’t mean becoming an athlete in college is a golden ticket to psychological wholeness. While participating in group sports has been shown to improve our self-esteem, social skills, and mood, a new study finds that nearly a quarter of Division I sportsmen and women report symptoms of depression.

A team of researchers led by Kean University’s Andrew Wolanin and Drexel University’s Eugene Hong monitored the mood levels of 465 collegiate athletes over three years. 6.3% met the criteria for clinically significant depression while the low moods of 24% were considered “clinically relevant” (a.k.a.: concerning but not enough to warrant a diagnosis). Women athletes were almost twice as likely as male athletes to show clinical symptoms of depression—especially if their sport of choice was track & field.

Wolanin A, Hong E, Marks D, et al. Br J Sports Med 2016 (via DrexelNow)
Source: Wolanin A, Hong E, Marks D, et al. Br J Sports Med 2016 (via DrexelNow)

Why these athletes exhibited so many depressive symptoms isn’t entirely clear. The researchers surmise that it could be a result of higher pressures put on them by coaches, their own underlying body image and self-esteem issues, or the differences in social support factors between various types of sports. (And let's not forget injuries atop the general stress of adapting to a living environment that’s no longer mom and dad’s house.)

The good news (kind of)? Depression rates in the studied athletes weren’t all that different from depression rates across their nonathletic counterparts—i.e., college students at the northeastern university who weren't formerly involved in any sports. Meaning: Being a member of a sports team from freshman to sophomore year isn’t a risk factor for mental illness itself. (Phew.) It just might not be as strong of a buffer against depression as many of us previously thought.

Similar to the compulsive exerciser whose tireless adherence to fitness most people admire, many college athletes may be struggling beneath a veneer of social approval, achievement and physical prowess. So it's crucial to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of depression, no matter how athletic (or not) someone is.

Persistent hopelessness or pessimism; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; irritability; feelings of guilt and worthlessness; loss of interest in pleasurable hobbies; and changes in appetite are key signs of depression. And depression has been linked to a host of health and wellbeing problems, from inflammation and heart disease to substance abusesocial isolation and suicidal ideation.

If you or someone you know is struggling with any of the above, getting in touch with a college counseling center or other mental health resource might be in order.

The National Institute of Mental Health has some great resources on depression here—and its prevalence among college students here. For coaches and college administration officials, the NCAA offers a booklet on managing depression and other mental health issues among student athletes, downloadable here. For more up to date information on mental health issues among sportsmen and sportswomen, check out SportsConflict.org

No matter how impressive or driven a person may seem, you may never know how much they're struggling inside. And while nobody's (yet) calling for a nation-wide mental health screening of all college sports participants, we may all do well to check our assumptions that athletes are any more immune from mental illness than the rest of us.

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