Professional Athletes and Mental Health. What Happens When You Are No Longer on Top?

Professional athletes on the downside of their active careers and those who have retired face mental health challenges that have been well documented. Anxiety, depression and the abuse of  drugs and alcohol are all very real possibilities. The issues are the worst with those athletes who have not prepared themselves emotionally or financially for life after professional sports.

This Mental Health Guide takes a look at professional athletes and mental health issues they might encounter after retirement.

Pro athletes at the top of their game achieve “rock star” status in which they receive personal praise, attention and financial remuneration far beyond what most of us experience. If they haven’t learned to stay grounded, they begin to think that those things bring true happiness. When their game fades, the cheers cease – and sometimes boos take their place. The lucrative contracts are no longer offered. Confusion, anxiety about their declining skills and fear of the future creep in.

Contributing Factors to Mental Health Issues in Professional Athletes

The first contributing factor is pain. Most professional athletes, and not just those in impact sports like football, boxing or mixed martial arts, experience significant injuries during their careers. They often retire with knees and other joints that have been operated on several times, bones with plates in them and a host of other injuries. The results can be chronic pain which leads to poor quality of life. It can also lead to abuse of pain medication, other drugs or alcohol.

Brain injury from concussion occurs in soccer players, baseball players, race car drivers and many athletes who don’t compete in contact sports. These brain injuries are a known cause of depression, often associated with a chronic brain disease known as CTE. Recent suicides and sudden deaths from natural causes of retired athletes under 50 have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when brain tissue was studied.

A third factor in mental health problems after retirement is the loss of money. The sad fact is that most professional athletes are broke within a few years of retirement because they never learned to manage their money. They live large and have relatives looking to them for handouts during their playing days. When the money runs out, so do the good times and the adulation they received.

Finally, many current and former pro athletes are reluctant to seek help for the issues they face, so they don’t take advantage of programs that are available.

New Hope for Older Athletes

The NBA, NFL and other professional leagues have taken the mental health of current and former players very seriously. Money management courses are being taught to young players. Steps are being taken to make the games safer. Counseling programs for mental health and substance abuse are available to active and retired players, and those players are being encouraged to take advantage of them. Awareness has been raised, and the leagues are taking action which many mental health professionals believe is long overdue.