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The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student-athletes’ mental health

Dr. Christine Selby says she's concerned with eating disorders among student-athletes.

BANGOR, Maine — Mental health impacts athletes of all ages and sometimes the pressure to perform can be overwhelming.

As the fall sports season approaches, it’s not out of the question that student-athletes here in Maine will face difficulties navigating sports with the disruptions and fears of the pandemic, according to mental health experts.

Sports psychologist Christine Selby told NEWS CENTER Maine depression and anxiety are the most common mental health issues she sees among athletes of all ages. However, this year especially, Selby said she will be on the lookout for eating disorders as the pandemic prevented some athletes from playing last year. This meant some athletes were less active and didn’t exercise as often, which can trigger concerns about weight gain.  

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Selby encourages parents and coaches to be on the lookout for athletes significantly cutting back on food, being over-concerned about calories, fat, and other macros in what they eat, and constantly skipping meals. 

"If anyone feels like, ‘I wonder if something is going on with my athlete, my son, my daughter?’ Don’t ignore that," Selby said. "Be patient with yourself if you're an athlete. Be patient with your athlete if you’re the coach or family member, but we’re still adjusting to COVID because it’s still ongoing and consistently changing.” 

Child psychologist Mark Allen with Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor said there are potential mental health issues athletes could suffer from when getting back into competition after not dealing with much of it for more than a year because of COVID. 

“Coaches and parents need to really emphasize taking things slow as you return to sports and competition because if you’re expected to play such a high level without any time for physical conditioning or mental conditioning, that’s a recipe for injury of both physical and mental,” Allen said.   

Both Allen and Selby encourage coaches and families to create a culture of openness so that a student athletes can feel comfortable coming to them if they’re struggling with their mental health. 

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In the early stages of last school year, public health restrictions and social distancing protocols drastically limited the student-athlete experience. Due to this, Allen said athletes will likely face new challenges to their mental health this season and coaches should take new approaches in practices. 

"The goals for the season should be a bit modified," he said. "You should really focus on fundamentals, injecting a lot of fun in practices, developing skills, and then rebuilding strength and conditioning on your own time."

If you are looking for any resources on mental health, check out the Let's Talk About It section of our website or mobile app.