Super Bowl 57 is officially a few weeks behind us and Arizona sportsbooks recorded 153.2 million placed on the game. But now that the game is over we should look back at the NFL season and take note of the rise in concussions and the mental health problems NFL players and athletes as a whole might face in the future from traumatic head trauma.
Over the last decade, there have been extensive strides in sports in various aspects both on the field of play and off the field of play. One of the biggest areas that we have seen those strides in is mental health and head trauma for athletes.
Mental health for a very long time has had a stigma against it that has kept athletes from discussing it whether it be privately or publicly. That stigma and therefore a lack of discussions often led to players suffering from severe anxiety and depression which can lead to unfortunate circumstances such as substance abuse, alcohol abuse, and potentially self-harming thoughts or tendencies.
According to a study done in 2019, nearly 35% of all “elite athletes” suffer from some sort of mental health issue. An alarmingly high rate for a level of athlete that is seemingly at the top of their sport and many believe have perfect and ideal lives. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. Behind the glamour and money of professional sports, professional athletes still very much suffer from the same issues that non-athletes suffer from on a daily basis.
That being said, throughout organized athletics but especially at the collegiate and professional levels, the sports landscape has seen a significant change in how it views and treats mental health. A large majority of colleges and universities offer their student-athletes (and nonathletes) the ability to take to psychologists at any moment without having to go through anyone else. This gives student-athletes the ability to quickly and privately discuss any mental health issues that they may be facing and do it in a manner that they will have confidence that it will be kept confidential. This goes beyond common mental health such as anxiety and depression as well, it can include sports-based mental health issues as well, a lack of confidence, sports-related anxiety, etc.
At the professional level of most major sports leagues, organizations are hiring mental health coaches to help serve their athletes. For example in Major League Baseball, teams often hire at least one if not multiple mental health coaches for their minor leaguers while also having a mental health coach for their talent at the major league as well. This is common throughout all major sports leagues as well as with organizations in football, hockey, and basketball.
This trend in sports surrounding mental health should only continue to increase going forward including as mental health continues to be a priority across society as a whole.
Another major issue that has been addressed over the last decade or so is that of head trauma. One way to help prevent mental health crises in the future is by mitigating potential head trauma throughout your life. Of course, in sports such as football and hockey, this is easier said than done. Both are hard-hitting contact sports, football especially where positions such as offensive and defensive linemen go through what equates to hundreds of car crashes in terms of force over the course of the season.
These repeated blows to not just the body and head over time have a major impact and as we have learned include over time the formation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE. CTE builds up over time due to multiple hits to the head as well as concussions, once CTE develops, those affected can suffer from severe mood swings, changes to their personality as well as other issues including memory loss, anxiety, and depression.
In football, helmets are evolving each and every year in order to better protect football players by trying to minimize the result of the impact of each hit on the head and brain. This includes finding ways to increase the padding but also without making the helmets significantly heavier. Another way that many are looking to minimize the impact of trauma to the head is by ensuring those who suffer concussions are fully healed from their concussion before returning to the field of play.
Oftentimes up until the last 10-15 years, athletes would commonly return to play immediately after a concussion or shortly afterward. Rarely would you see an athlete miss extended time due to concussions. However, due to what is now known about concussions, their long-term effects on the brain include the potential development of CTE. In today’s sports landscape, it’s common to see athletes miss weeks and potentially months after suffering concussions, not just due to the concussion itself but also due to the side effects that can come with suffering a concussion. Unfortunately, while our ability to guess when a concussion has occurred before testing has greatly improved, many cases still are missed before more head trauma occurs, this is especially common in football where concussions may not always be immediately recognizable but get worse over the course of a game due to repeated hits.
Overall, our understanding of head trauma and how to handle it has greatly improved over the last decade. Plenty of work is still to be done, it will be impossible to eliminate concussions from occurring altogether on the field of play but if we can continue to mitigate the frequency as well as the overall effect they have on the brain by quicker recognition and treatment of the concussions, athletes in the future will have a much better chance of having healthier post-playing careers, especially in heavier contact sports like football and hockey.