The National Institute of Mental Health estimates one-fifth of all Americans have a mental illness (AMI), which it defines as “any mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder” that can range in severity from none to mild, moderate, or severe. Between 15 and 20 percent of Americans will experience depression at some point. An NCAA study found that depression is the most common mental illness sports psychiatrists treat.
So where does mental illness fit into an athletic trainer’s cycle of care, intervention, prevention, and rehabilitation? While athletic trainers aren’t mental health providers, they help patients find the right help.
Often, ATs see patients who open up to them about personal issues at home, at school, or in general. Because they’re a health care provider, and mental health is a part of health care, the patient is comfortable and feels like the AT is trustworthy. At some point in an AT’s career, they will likely need to help a patient experiencing a mental health crisis. After the patient leaves, the AT is left wondering what they can do to help. While they can’t treat the patient’s mental health issue, they can help them find the right treatment.
Identifying a Potential Issue
A patient’s behavior may indicate they are struggling with a mental health issue rather than their verbal confirmation. Because athletic trainers work with patients daily, they become familiar with their personalities and interests. Mental health problems can be indicated by certain signs that ATs should look for in their patients.
- Always aggressive, agitated, or angry
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Always injured or ill
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol
- Monitoring weight all the time
- Risky behaviors (including sexually)
We should remember that symptoms are not linear. Getting to know your patient and noticing any strange behavior could be a warning sign. People who are outgoing or gregarious suddenly become quiet. It could also be a sign if someone is quiet but then acts manic or aggressive. Recognizing these symptoms isn’t the only way to identify mental health problems. It’s important for athletic trainers to understand mental health in general so they can understand the who, what, where, when, why, how, and because of certain diagnoses.
The following are resources you can use to learn more about mental health:
- The 2013 and 2015 inter-association consensus statements
- NCAA resources dedicated to the well-being of college athletes, such as data and research studies on multiple topics involving mental health and sports, educational resources, best practices, and fact sheets
- Mental Health America, is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental health and addressing the needs of those with mental illnesses
- The ATs Care Commission, which offers resources for mental health
Though athletic trainers are passionate about health care, mental health can be a sensitive topic for many people, so it’s important to know where to draw the line.
Until you’re accredited, you’re not a mental health care professional. You’re not treating depression, anxiety, or anything else. You’re referring them to a mental health professional. Also, with suicide ideation, always be careful and get them somewhere or activate your emergency plan. Collaborate with mental health professionals before you need them.