Teens’ mental health improves after returning to sport

08 October 2022

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Watson D, et al. The impact of return to sport on mental health, physical activity and quality of life among adolescent athletes during COVID-19. Presented at: AAP National Conference & Exhibition; October 7-11, 2022; Anaheim, California

Watson reports no relevant financial disclosures.

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ANAHEIM, CA. — Reports of anxiety and depression are down among student-athletes who have returned to sports after layoffs caused by the pandemic, according to a presentation at the AAP National Conference and Exposition.

Co-author Drew Watson MD, MS, is a member of the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and a staff physician at the University of Wisconsin Department of Athletics. He noted that the loss of sports among the nation’s young athletes early in the pandemic was linked to dramatic increases in mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Watson et al.

“Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that adolescent athletes reported low levels of physical activity and quality of life and very high levels of anxiety and depression after school and sports were delayed or canceled,” Watson told Healio .

Watson and colleagues compared the results of surveys completed by 13,002 adolescent athletes nationwide in May 2020 with those completed by 4,419 teenagers in May 2021. The surveys included questions from the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, an item scale (PHQ-9), the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale-7 (GAD-7), and the Hospital for Special Surgery Function and Activity Short Scale.

The researchers found that the proportion of teenagers who reported no anxiety was significantly higher in spring 2021 than spring 2020 — 57.9% vs. 40.5% . Overall GAD-7 scores show a decline from 7 in 2020 to 4.9 in 2021 (P < 0.001). Similar changes were seen in depression, with the proportion of athletes reporting minimal or no signs of depression increasing to 62.1% in 2021 from 38.4% in 2020. Specifically, total scores on the PHQ- 9 dropped from 7.6 in 2020 to 4.6 in 2021.

Athletes in 2021 also reported significantly higher levels of physical activity and quality of life.

Watson mentioned this overall, adolescents who returned to sports reported similar levels of physical activity to those seen before the pandemic, “but continued to report lower quality of life and higher levels of anxiety and depression. So while returning to sport appears to have important benefits, mental health will be a vital priority among young athletes following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He added that while it is possible to “encourage the development of infrastructure that promotes physical activity, the prioritization and funding of physical education in schools, and the support of community-based programs that reduce barriers to access,” there is a more important end game .

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do more broadly is break down the cultural stigma around mental health and create an environment that facilitates conversations about mental health with young athletes so we can identify those at risk and get them the help they need,” Watson said.

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