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Becoming Sidelined: Signs and Symptoms of Depression

by Jordan Anderson

There hasn’t been a time in recent history that mental health has taken such a center stage in our culture. With the advent of social media, access to multimedia, investigative reporting, and others, mental health seems to be at the forefront of popular culture. This has unfortunately become a predominantly reactionary issue. Most talk of mental health follows an event in the news about a major tragedy with a celebrity or the aftermath of a mass casualty event. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that it starts a conversation. One of the most pressing issues with mental health is the stigma surrounding the topic. The more we normalize open discussion about mental health, the more educated we become, subsequently reducing that stigma and providing open spaces for those who need to seek help to do so with dignity. This article is going to focus on one of the biggest topics surrounding mental health - depression. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health depression is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how one feels, thinks, and handles daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. The World Health Organization estimates that over 300 million in the world suffer from depression. According to studies of depression in student-athletes, as many as one in five athletes may be depressed. Clearly depression represents an emergent health crisis with a massive scope of impact. 

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Not surprisingly, research has identified depression as a potential outcome of the athlete’s emotional response to becoming permanently-sidelined. If we look at a blended chart of the Kubler/Ross grief model and Lewis/Parker’s seven stages of transitional change, depression can occur when the reality of the inevitable begins to set in - “I can no longer play and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” Depression can also be a result of the “testing” stage where a sidelined athlete seeking a new passion or challenge may fail to reach the same level of satisfaction that competition once gave them. Being depressed can lead to other concerns as well such as anxiety, mood disorders, alcohol/opiate abuse, and even suicidal ideation.

Whether you are an athlete or a member of the athlete’s support network, this chart can help assess whether depression may be more serious and in need of professional evaluation.

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* This list is not all encompassing but hits the most common signs/symptoms. Depressed individuals can experience some or all of these signs/symptoms in varying severities. An absence of one or more of these signs/symptoms does not necessarily exclude a person from a depression diagnosis.

What should I do if I am experiencing symptoms of depression?

As a sidelined athlete experiencing some symptoms of depression, you may be asking, “What can I do?” First and foremost, if you feel that you are becoming depressed you should seek help! It is always encouraged to reach out to your support network (parents, friends, coaches, athletic trainer, etc.) to explain how you’re feeling. As an athlete, it may be typical for you to internalize struggles and “tough it out.” However, it is important to realize that depression is a medical condition that often requires treatment and intervention. It takes real courage to reveal you are struggling and likely will not be easy. Appropriate health care professionals can offer therapeutic strategies and coping mechanisms to address your feelings and discuss if prescription medication is an option for you.

A few other recommendations from trusted mental health resources such as www.project375.org and www.umttr.org :

  1. If you are feeling depressed you can take a brief online assessment here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/health/mental-health-assessment.

  2. If you are interested in seeking treatment you can find a facility near you here: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov. (Important note: This is a government website that compiles a list of local facilities; we do not endorse any specific location and encourage you to ask questions to find the best place for you.)

  3. If you are in any type of crisis and feel the need to talk anything out, you can text 741-741 from anywhere in the United States. You will be put in touch with a trained crisis counselor.  

  4. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, the support you need is just one phone call away. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides free, confidential emotional support for you @ 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7/365.

How can I talk to the sidelined athlete in my life about my concerns about possible depression?

As a supporter of a sidelined athlete, you should know you are never wrong to confront the individual if you have concerns about their emotional health. It may be uncomfortable and may even lead to a negative reaction, but initiating the conversation is valuable starting point. So how do you start that conversation? It truly can be very simple.

  • start by asking, “How are you doing with everything?”

Research has shown that people often respond positively to the question, “How are you doing?”. It may not be best to jump right to asking if a person is depressed, because he/she may not be aware that how they are feeling actually reflects symptoms of depression. However, simply asking how a person is doing will often lead to a meaningful conversation and possibly even a realization that he/she needs help.

  • follow up with thoughtful, open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions are best for facilitating discussion.  Keep in mind the signs and symptoms listed above and discern if the responses you hear reveal indicators of depression.

  • Ask, “Do you think you want help with how you’re feeling?”

Asking this simple, non-offensive question can often let a person feel free enough to be open to talking to a professional. If they say “no”, it’s important to respect their answer, unless you fear they are going to hurt themselves or others. However, just because they say “no”, does not mean the conversation has to end. You should still check in with them if you continue to be worried for them. Encourage them that they don’t have to figure this all out on their own and that there are professionals who are trained to offer real, tangible help. Affirm that what they are going through is really difficult and that there’s no shame in talking to someone about how to get to a better place.

If you are interested in learning more about emotional health, we encourage you to visit www.changedirection.org* and check back on the Sidelined USA website for more articles and interviews this month as we continue to discuss depression in sidelined athletes.

* The goal of the Campaign to Change Direction is to change the culture of mental health in America so that all of those in need receive the care and support they deserve. The campaign encourages all Americans to pay attention to their emotional well-being and it reminds us that our emotional well-being is just as important as our physical well-being.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered. 

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Jordan Anderson, MS, ATC

Athletic Trainer, Vice-President of Illinois Athletic Trainers' Association, and Sidelined USA Board Member

Jordan was drawn to Sidelined USA because of its many outlets of support for permanently-sidelined athletes. Jordan recognizes the profound significance of mental health awareness in athletes and serves as a presenter on mental health in the athletic community. Jordan is passionate about growing Sidelined USA and helping athletes across the country find their place and cope with their new reality.