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  • Sarah Pospos, MD, MS

How to Recognize Depression in Athletes

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Unfortunately, athletes are not immune to depression. As a sports psychiatrist and former student athlete, I’ll share information about depression in athletes, how to recognize depression, and when to see a sports psychiatrist so you don’t have to suffer alone.

Depression in Athletes

A few facts:

  • 10% of college athletes have depression

  • The highest depression rate is found in female track and field athletes

  • Depression is the #1 cause of disability

  • 50% of those who are depressed also struggle with anxiety

  • Only 62% of those who are depressed receive treatment

Athletes may also battle unique challenges such as:

  • Injury

  • Retirement from sports

  • Overtraining

  • Concussion

  • Falling short in the brightest light after spending every waking hour training

Learn more here.

How to Recognize Depression

You may find it harder and harder to get out of bed every morning, constantly questioning what the point is of all this training, sacrifice, and hard work? It all just seems meaningless. Your coach may notice a decline in your athletic performance as well.

You may experience:

  • Intense and sustained feelings of sadness, emptiness, and irritability

  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy

  • Low energy

  • Poor focus, concentration, and decision-making

  • Loss of self-esteem

  • Helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or extreme shame/guilt

  • Sleep problems

  • Appetite changes

  • Sexual difficulties


When to See a Sports Psychiatrist

If feeling rundown and depressed starts to get in the way of your training, athletic performance, relationships, or daily responsibilities, help is needed.

Psychiatrists are specialized medical doctors who require at least 12 years in higher education and 15,000 hours of clinical training before being allowed to independently diagnose, treat, or prescribe medications. In comparison, nurse practitioners (NP) require 500 clinical hours (typically supervised by a medical doctor), and physician assistants (PA) require 2,000 clinical hours. Sports psychiatrists are psychiatrists with specialized training and have in-depth understanding of the nuances when diagnosing, treating, or prescribing medications for athletes.

One major hesitation for athletes is taking medication that can negatively impact their athletic performance. For instance, most medications for bipolar disorder (which may present as depression) may cause weight gain, tremors, or sedation that can undoubtedly impair athletic performance. Thus, lamotrigine, which is less likely to produce these side effects, is preferred in athletes. Additionally, since common medical conditions, like anemia or hypothyroidism, may mimic depression, it’s important to rule out these conditions by checking your blood and thyroid levels.

As a sports psychiatrist and former student athlete, I believe that every patient is different, and my recommendations are always made on a case-by-case analysis. If together we determine that medication is beneficial, I’ll walk you through different options, thoroughly explaining risks, benefits, alternatives, and potential side effects, so you can be fully informed and content with the next steps. My Masters Degrees in Psychopharmacology and Applied Psychology add even more insight on all things medication and human behavior.

Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Book a free 15-minute initial phone call to reach your full potential without suffering alone.

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