There is a fine line between using sports as an outlet for the stressors of daily life and depending on it to treat depression and anxiety.
It’s a quietly toxic idea in sports culture; your mental health will improve if you get to play sports, you just need to focus on your sport and it will help you with your depression.
I am not discounting the positive impact sports can have on releasing stress and improving overall mental health. I was a year-round athlete in high school and it was incredibly cathartic to throw myself into practices and extra workouts. I think sometimes it did help me cope with my stress and baseline improved my mental health. But I didn’t experience feelings of depression or anxiety in high school. And if you do, you shouldn’t be relying on sports to fix your mental health issues.
I read an article last week that made me really think about this. A senior at Mona Shores High School died by suicide on Jan. 18. Seeing that story made my heart ache, for more reasons than one. It’s one of the most devastating things in life, to see someone so young struggle silently and in the end, decide their life is not worth living.
The way the story was written, however, made my blood start to boil. The story leads with 18-yearold Brennan Dethloff being able to “count on” hockey to help him “battle with depression and anxiety.” Once the pandemic put a halt on high school sports, “it was too much” for him to take. The way this story is written, most of the blame is put on the governor’s order to halt high school sports and if only he had been able to play, he might still be here. A good portion of the story is also about the “Let Them Play” protests at the Michigan capitol.
Besides the issue of depending on sports to fix mental health issues, it feels disrespectful to use this tragic death for political gain—I saw a report that his name is being used as the main plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Monday to allow high school sports to resume play.
The article does not mention if he was seeking therapy, or was on any sort of medication. But it repeatedly implies that if Brennan was not able to cope with his depression without hockey.
Why isn’t the main takeaway from this gut-wrenching death a cry for more education on how to treat mental health for our teenagers? Why are we ignoring the point that is glaring us in the face: we are hurting our young athletes by letting them mainly—if not only—depend on playing their sport to deal with their mental health. Instead of an outcry for more resources and education for teenage athletes struggling with depression, a tragic death is politicized.
Sports can be ripped away from teens for a number of reasons: serious injuries, suspensions or simply aging out of competitive play. What should they do then? When a pandemic is no longer the reason for ending their careers? When there isn’t a government mandate to blame? I’m not saying whether or not high school sports should be playing. But simply resuming play without seriously making efforts to increase education on how to treat your mental health is just delaying the issue.
Your depression or anxiety will catch up with you one day. Are we going let our future kids get by with sports to cope and then leave them without knowing how to effectively deal with their very serious struggles once they can no longer play?
Your response to this can be to advocate for the kids to go back to playing, but not if you are going to disregard the real issue. We have to start talking to teenagers about their mental health and give them resources. The more we talk about this, the more kids we can reach and the more likely they are to seek out the research-based help that might save their lives.