Ask the Pediatrician: What to know about mental health in teen athletes

The single most important thing parents can do is create a safe environment.

Mental illness is a very common and serious problem among teenagers. Despite the fact that sports and physical activity have numerous mental health benefits, young athletes are not immune to the ongoing mental health crisis.

Indeed, some potential effects of being a competitive athlete, such as perfectionism, external performance pressures, or severe injuries, may increase the risk of mental illness. Improving mental health and well-being can not only make young athletes feel better, but it can also have significant benefits for performance and lowering the risk of illness and injury.

The most important thing parents can do for their children is to provide a safe environment that encourages ongoing conversations about mental health.

Assure your child that they can tell you anything without fear of being judged. Recognize and communicate to your child the importance of mental health. The goal is to normalize the discussion. Bring up the subject of mental health yourself, and be available when your child needs to talk.

Keep an eye out for anxiety symptoms such as:

  • Significant concerns about events before they occur
  • Constant worries about family, school, friends, or activities
  • Fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
  • A lack of self-esteem and confidence

Some signs of depression include:

  • Being or appearing to be depressed, sad, tearful, or irritable
  • Loss of interest in friends, academics, or extracurricular activities
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight
  • Sleeping more or less than usual; difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal or self-harm thoughts

If you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health, talk to them and assist them in seeking help.

Encourage athletes to communicate with you or other family members, friends, and health care providers. You can also dial 9-8-8 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

If you believe your child is having a mental health emergency (expressing a desire to harm themselves or others), dial 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Remember to consult your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s mental health.


Drew Watson, MD, MS, FAAP sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. He is a team physician for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s athletic department and practices pediatric sports medicine in the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine and Public Health.

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