Injured athletes battle mental illness more

Jesse Fowler, an African-American football player for Merrimack College, recalls his fears after a severe concussion sidelined him for the remainder of the 2010 season.

“I had a little anxiety. I was thinking, ‘is this going to happen next year? Am I going to be hesitant next time when I put the pads on?’ I’m always thinking about whether or not I’m going to get hit in the head again,” Fowler says.

He doesn’t remember the events of that day he was injured, but the fears lingered. However, Fowler, like many African-American athletes, chose not to discuss his psychological concerns with anyone after the injury.

“[I thought those things] mainly to myself. I didn’t really talk to anyone. It wasn’t too serious where I felt like I needed to tell somebody,” Fowler explains.

Injured athletes have an increased risk of developing mental illnesses and are less likely to seek psychiatric help, according to new research presented in this month’s edition of Current Psychiatry.

The results show that injured athletes experience depression six times more often than the general population.

This is particularly alarming for African-American athletes, because statistics confirm that blacks are less likely to seek mental health services than any other demographic group.

“Most guys keep that to themselves,” says Byron Beaman, a former Western Connecticut State University football player, also African-American. “That’s not really part of the athletic culture… to complain when you’re hurt. You actually play hurt 99.9 percent of the time. But, psychologically, you have to tune those things out.”

Beaman noticed mental changes in several injured teammates, but said they never discussed their feelings with team members or staff.

“They would have a very melancholy attitude. You could see it in their eyes that the whole idea of not being able to play is tough to deal with. And sometimes guys would distance themselves from the game,” Beaman said.

Many successful athletes put their primary focus into the sport rather than exploring other activities. So, if an injury prevents them from playing, they can experience loss of identity.

“If their self-esteem, self worth and identity is wrapped up in that, it’s not healthy,” says Peter Roby, athletic director at Northeastern University. “When they lose that opportunity to play because of injury… there’s a real transition problem. There’s an inability to identify themself as a normal, mainstream citizen of the world.”

The athlete may feel isolated and experience depression or even develop substance abuse.

“A fair number of the younger men we see are here because of addictions that were started because of an orthopedic injury,” says Dr. Clara Jones, Medical Director at Dimock Medical Center Detox Program in Boston. “They were started with the opiate medications appropriately for pain, but then they get stuck.”

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having psychological distress than other demographics. However, the percentage of blacks receiving psychiatric or addiction treatment is only half that of whites.

“The feeling in the African-American community is that psychiatric illness and addiction is within people’s control, rather than viewing it as a medical disease,” Jones explains. “Therefore, if it’s within your control, and you’re still having problems with the psychiatric illness, then people will think it’s your fault.”

In a 1996 survey by Mental Health America, 63 percent of blacks viewed depression as a personal weakness, rather than a health problem.

“In the African American community, when traumatic things happen, you don’t go to a psychologist. You just deal with it,” explains Beaman.

The recent suicides of popular NFL players Junior Seau and Kenny McKinley solidified both the detrimental effects of mental illness, and the need for increased public awareness.

“The way we address psychiatric issues in our society… we’ve got to do a better job making that seem much more mainstream and a part of a wellness approach,” Roby says. “No one would demonize anyone for having cancer, and the same needs to be the case when we talk about mental health issues.”

For more information on mental illness visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Sola Okenla is registered nurse and journalist currently pursuing a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Emerson College Graduate School of Journalism.  Sola is also a pediatric emergency nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Follow her on twitter at @solee0403.