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  • Sports and Depression

Can Sports Help Prevent Depression in Girls?

I have worked for nearly four decades with children and families and have spent thousands of hours in therapy listening to my patients. As director of a graduate program in school counseling, I am constantly in schools all over the country listening to and observing children.

When famous people commit suicide, parents take notice. I am also worried – and especially for girls. In a recent article in the journal Pediatrics, the authors discussed that more than 36% of girls or about one in every six children have been or are depressed by the age of 17. Most of these problems are untreated. Even more alarming, suicide rates among middle school students have spiked. Suicide is now the leading cause of death over motor accidents. There are lots of reasons why I think this is occurring, and I will talk about these reasons in a future blog. Right now, I want to talk about the role sports can play when dealing with depression in adolescents. Let’s look at how sports and exercise can help your daughter’s mood and her self-confidence.

Sports & Depression

I want to reinforce all the work you do as a parent to help your child in her athletic endeavors. I am not saying that athletes are immune to depression, but we do know that sports can be helpful.  Research published recently in The American Journal of Psychiatry finds that exercise can help prevent depression – across people of all ages. And not only is exercise a preventative measure, we’ve found that regular exercise helps alleviate existing symptoms of depression, such as changes in mood.

Depression is a lonely disease, and sports provides a team where you learn to care about others, and others care about you. It’s a place where coaches and other adults are interacting with your child each day, often for many hours. Best of all, I think athletics gives a girl a lot of self-confidence in a world that is often giving her many negative messages, particularly focusing on how she looks. Furthermore, the National Women’s Law Center conducted a landmark review of Title IX programs that clearly indicates that girls that play sports (versus non-athletes) have a decreased risk for substance abuse, are less likely to get pregnant, become depressed or self-harm, and are more likely to graduate from high school and college. Those are important findings for any parent.

What are the Signs?

So how can parents look for signs of depression? Sports can be helpful here, too. In my experience, depressed athletes often exhibit some common behaviors. For example, the athlete withdraws from teammates, and her performance and attitude start to suffer. Your daughter talks more about giving up or quitting. Their grades start to suffer, and they talk far more negatively about themselves. They fight more with parents, and they often sleep far more than peers. Eating habits may change. Because athletics are such a visible part of a child’s life, parents paying attention to behavior changes here may often find the clues they need.

If you do find that your daughter is suffering from depression, it is important that she seeks therapy – and it needs to be excellent. Being in the profession, I can tell you that unfortunately there are too many unskilled therapists out there. Make sure you pick someone from a reputable university, and the therapist should have at least a decade of experience. It takes a lot of experience and training to be a great therapist. Ask around – your primary care physician should be able to give recommendations, and other parents can be a good source of information, too. The therapist you pick could make all the difference in the world for your daughter.

One more thing – a hard part of my job has been to work with parents and families after they have lost a daughter. Nothing can be more devastating. I cannot find words to describe the pain and suffering of these families. They are never the same again. So… talk to your daughter every day, ask questions and follow your gut. It is not a mistake to be a bit nosy in her life – especially when you think things don’t make sense. Don’t mind your own business, as many a daughter might say to you. Let your love guide you.

By: Dr. Don Martin

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