The effects of sports injuries on mental health

11 May 2021 08:23 am, by YorkshireSquare

Trigger Warning: Article contains mentions of suicide and mental illness and may trigger certain readers

On February 27, 2011, Chicago Cubs safetyman Dave Duerson died of suicide when he shot himself in the chest. Before he was found, Duerson sent his family a text asking them to donate his brain to the Boston School of Medicine for research into CTE, a disease caused by excessive head trauma. Duerson’s case wasn’t the first. A year later, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau died of suicide on May 2, 2012. Both of their autopsies revealed that they suffered from CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to the Boston School of Medicine, 110 of the 111 scans of deceased football players showed evidence of CTE.

Their tragic stories serve as cautionary tales of the effects of sports injuries on mental illness. While experts hail about sports’ physical and psychological benefits, sports injuries have become a dark horse because of their link to mental illness. Concussions are notoriously underreported because players don’t want to be seen as weak, meaning many injuries are left unchecked until the damage is irreversible.

Mental Health is a vital part of everyone’s health, not just athletes. More and more people are coming out to talk about mental illness, slowly eradicating the taboo of men asking for help. If you’re living with symptoms of mental illness, reach out to BetterHelp. BetterHelp can connect you with hundreds of licensed professionals specializing in cognitive behavior therapy, dialectic behavior therapy, EMDR, psychodynamic therapy, and exposure therapy, to name a few. For more information, visit BetterHelp today.

Despite reluctance from sports associations and players alike, studies show a disturbingly rising trend in the prevalence of mental illness and sports injuries. In this article, we’ll cover some of the effects of sports injuries on mental health.


For athletes whose lives revolve around their sport, a significant injury and substantial time away from practice can lead to depression. Their quality of life may deteriorate, and those mental symptoms may lead to physical ailments. Some of these symptoms may include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Disinterest or Apathy
  • Sadness or emotional outbursts
  • Extreme anger or irritability
A study quoted in the New York Times found that more than half (180) of 353 male athletes experienced depression after sustaining an injury, and around 12%(42) of those athletes felt severe depression.

Athletes with depression may spend several weeks without training and may take several more to get back to their peak physical health. Along the way, they may risk injury if they train too hard. Some cases of severe injury may take months of recovery, contributing to the player’s depressive state. Denver Broncos wide receiver Kevin McKinley died of suicide after bouts of depression following knee surgery. After the surgery, his recovery time would have forced him to miss an entire season.

Substance Abuse

Research suggests that athletes with sustained injuries are more likely to experience addiction to painkillers after recovery. Players may abuse prescription pills if they have not fully recovered and attempt to underreport or downplay their pain levels to get back to training. They may grow dependent on painkillers as time goes on and may never recover and develop an addiction. Developing an addiction may further push back a player’s playtime, leading to more time off and depressive symptoms. This was the case with New York Jets backup quarterback Erik Ainge when he sat out of the entire 2010 season to recover from painkiller addiction.

Deteriorating Cognitive Functions

In severe cases, severe injuries may lead to long-term physical effects that may alter a player’s life indefinitely. CTE is defined as a neurodegenerative disease caused by sustained head trauma over time. The most likely to develop CTE are athletes in full-contact sports with a high likelihood of concussions such as martial arts, football, rugby, and hockey.

CTE causes symptoms in patients years after sustained injuries. Also, diagnosing CTE is impossible when the patient is alive, as diagnoses can only be made postmortem. Symptoms range from mild to severe but can progress over time. Initial stage symptoms may include dizziness, confusion, and disorientation. As the disease progresses, more severe symptoms occur, such as dementia, memory loss, vertigo, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Abrupt, aggressive mood changes are also a symptom of CTE.

Before his suicide, Junior Seau’s ex-wife had complained that Seau had acted increasingly aggressive, which was different from his usual demeanor. His story is a testament to the long-term effects of sustained head injuries and the lack of incentive for athletes to be honest about their injuries.

Final Thoughts

Sports can be taxing on the body and mind over years of physical strain. Without proper diagnoses, many injuries may deteriorate the body and cause psychological symptoms and mental illnesses. As sports associations continue to downplay concussions and athletes try to “tough” out their pain, change must come from organizations and players alike.