As a Certified Athletic Trainer at South Christian High School and Hulst Jepsen Physical Therapy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, usually I get to talk about the parts of my job that I love but today I get to discuss mental healing and sports injuries! Today we are doing something a little different. We are talking about the hard stuff, the nitty-gritty. Today we are going to be real with each other. There are days I get to help kids stay on the field, play their game, and celebrate their successes. On other days though, athletes get hurt, knees blow, heads are concussed, bones break, and seasons end; that is reality. In school, we learn so much about recognizing injury, reacting appropriately, and helping people heal from the physical aspects of injuries but where we lack is helping with the mental healing.
This is so hard! When a kid sustains a season-ending injury we expect there to be some signs, but these are not the only athletes that struggle. From the NCAA website: Mind, Body, Sport: How being injured affects mental health, “For some student-athletes, the psychological response to injury can trigger or unmask serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use or abuse.” The loss of identity as an athlete and teammate is well documented and understandable, these kids work hard to make and be part of a team and injury takes those expectations and changes their outlook. It is critical to be aware and look for signs such as:
When a kid is injured physically, we need to know if it is a bandaid/taping situation or a 911 call for an ambulance. The same is true in mental health. I struggled with this as an athletic trainer. It is hard to know what are normal feelings of loss (needs a bandaid) and what is an acceleration of symptoms (needs a professional). Any acceleration of the above changes is a sign that the athlete may need further help from a mental health professional, and we need to break the stigma and help our athletes know that seeking that professional mental health professional is never wrong. It takes courage and emotional maturity.
I asked a local mental health professional once what to do for my athlete when they are expressing their losses, fears, and anger. The response feels like common sense to me now but then it was a revelation. Acknowledge and validate the loss and let them talk or even cry. This is NOT easy for me. I want to cheer people up, but I’m learning (slowly) to stop showing them the silver lining and to listen. I was told, “it is normal to feel sad when something is sad!” There will be ups and downs in both physical and emotional healing. Loss of sleep for a night or two and feeling anger and frustration are normal. Losing sleep for weeks and feeling in a constant state of anger or frustration is not normal. As for seeking help when it isn’t “needed” we send for x-rays to find out if there is a broken bone, why wouldn’t we check up with a professional for their brain?
In physical injury, this looks like physical therapy, consistent check-ins, increased function, strength with the strength and conditioning staff, and return to play protocols. For mental health, it’s the same, continue to include them in team functions, daily check-ins, and knowing and using appropriate mental health resources. I worked with a student several years ago who tore her ACL her senior year and was in physical therapy with one of my wonderful colleagues at Hulst Jepsen Physical Therapy. She came in after her appointment and stated that she cried through her entire appointment, not from physical pain but emotional. Her physical therapist told her that she was in a safe space to feel anger and doubt and validated her. The young lady felt the strength after that to seek professional help and recovered and thrived later. I don’t think her physical therapist “fixed her” mental health but allowed her the space to feel and express her concerns. She was asked every visit how she was doing physically as well as mentally.
As with physical injury, I know where to send a kid if they are injured, I know the resources available, the parents in the stands that are doctors/dentists/EMTs, etc. It is important to do the same in your school with mental health. What resources are available to your student-athlete? What programs, personnel, and protocols are in place to help overwhelmed individuals?
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health after a sports injury or after the loss of their athletic season/career, please don’t hesitate to get help. Taking care of your mental well-being is just as important as taking care of your physical well-being. There are so many resources right in Grand Rapids, Michigan and in your local community:
Putukian, M. (2014, November 5). Mind, body and sport: How being injured affects mental health. NCAA.org. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.ncaa.org/sports/2014/11/5/mind-body-and-sport-how-being-injured-affects-mental-health.aspx