Did COVID-19 Affect The Mental Health Of College Student-Athletes?

A new study published in the Journal of Athletic Training looked at self-reported mental health measures among incoming collegiate student-athletes who had COVID-19.

“We were interested in seeing if a young, highly active group experienced a lasting emotional upheaval following recovery from COVID-19,” study author Melissa Anderson told us. “Based on reports that up to a third of people who had a COVID-19 diagnosis experience persistent psychological symptoms, we expected to see similar results in our study. Due to the major disruption the pandemic caused, we anticipated that athletes who self-reported having COVID would also report slightly higher feelings of depression and anxiety.” 

COVID-19 has been a major concern since early 2020 and has affected everyone to some degree. While COVID generally had more severe effects on older adults and people with underlying health conditions, it is important to understand how the virus affected this perceived to be low-risk population. Participating in sports can help with feelings of depression and anxiety, along with so many other great benefits from being physically active. 

“So, our big research question was to see if COVID affected college student-athletes reported anxiety and depression similar to an older, non-athlete population,” Anderson told us. “We retrospectively looked at incoming college student-athletes who self-reported whether they have had COVID-19.”

Based on their response to this one question, the researchers were able to divide the student-athletes into two groups: COVID history (COVID+) and no COVID (COVID-) history. Then, they looked at their associated mental health questionnaires that assessed satisfaction with life, anxiety, and depression. 

“Overall, we found minimal differences between the groups, except for depression,” Anderson told us. “That’s where we did see that COVID+ athletes reported significantly higher feelings of depression than COVID- athletes. We do want to emphasize that while COVID+ athletes were more depressed, these values were still well below established clinical cutoffs.” 

The researchers also considered sex as a biological variable and ran an additional analysis to see if this played an important role for our outcomes of interest. From this, they found that COVID+ females reported significantly higher feelings of anxiety than all other groups. 

“These results were not entirely surprising,” Anderson told us. “It is well-documented that women report more anxiety than men, and that is what we saw. However, it was positive to see that the emotional upheaval COVID caused did not have a serious lasting effect on this group of student-athletes.” 

Overall, athletes were more satisfied with their lives than the average 18 to 24-year-old in addition to feeling less anxious and depressed than their non-athlete classmates. 

Athletic trainers and other sports medicine professionals working with athletes should consider COVID history, especially for female athletes, when assessing mental health. However, based on the study findings, there are no serious, lasting mental health implications in otherwise healthy college-aged student-athletes who had COVID. 

“This is a complex topic, and further research is needed to really understand what is happening at a pathophysiological level,” Anderson told us. 

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