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Research Report: Wisconsin Student Athletes, COVID-19, and Depression

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

We recently published an article about the relationship between teen mental health, coronavirus, and high school sports. That piece was based on a study initiated by a Canadian high school student who analyzed the effect of coronavirus lockdown on student athletes in her school district in Ontario. She found that after six weeks of shelter-in-place orders, over half the students surveyed reported feeling isolated and disconnected, almost half experienced elevated levels of anxiety, frustration, or depression, and over half felt a sense of apathy and a decreased initiative to complete tasks.

Another study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin confirmed the validity of the Canadian study – and found that the percentage of student athletes with depressive symptoms was alarmingly high. Three things catch our eye about the Wisconsin study:

  1. Researchers collected data around the same time as the study performed in Canada – in late April/early May 2020, after about six weeks of coronavirus shelter-in-place/lockdown.
  2. Researchers used formal psychological metrics to measure rates of anxiety, depression, and wellbeing, as opposed to the situation-specific questions used in the Canadian study.
  3. Researcher found higher rates of reported depressive symptoms in student athletes in Wisconsin than in student athletes in Canada.

These observations – and similar reports and testimonies from adolescent development experts around the country – are part of the larger conversation happening in the U.S. right now. Policy makers, school administrators, teachers, and parents are engaged in a serious dialogue about how, when, and even if students should return to school in the fall. The report from Wisconsin adds important data to the discussion. It also reminds us that sports are about more than working out, having fun, and experiencing camaraderie and competition.

The Effect of School Closures on Health

On March 13th, 2020, Governor Tony Evers ordered the statewide closure of all K-12 schools in the state of Wisconsin. Around six weeks later, during the month of May, researchers from the University of Wisconsin recruited over three thousand student athletes through Facebook, Twitter, and a mass email campaign to participate in a study on the effect of these school closures on their physical and mental health. The group had an average age of sixteen years old, was 60 percent female and 40 percent male, and included students who participated in school or club sports.

The research team assessed three areas of health:

  1. Mental Health. To assess anxiety, researchers used the Generalized Anxiety Disorder – 7 Item, a seven-question survey designed to assess Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) on a range from mild to severe. To assess depression, researchers used the Patient Health Questionnaire – 9 Item, a nine-question survey designed to assess depression on a range from mild to severe.
  2. Physical Activity. To assess levels of physical activity, researchers use the Pediatric Functional Activity Brief Scale (PFABS).
  3. Health Related Quality of Life. To assess general wellbeing, researchers used the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory 4.0 (PedsQL).

The surveys, in total, took under ten minutes to complete. All respondents participated in some form of organized sports – school or club – in the 12 months before completing the survey, and all respondents lived in the state of Wisconsin for at least 12 months before completing the survey.

The Results

Here’s what the researchers found in the three focus areas:

Note: historical data for depression, physical activity, and quality of life appear in the study, but no historical data for anxiety was available for comparison.

  • 65% of students reported anxiety symptoms
    • 40.3% reported mild symptoms
    • 11.7% reported mild symptoms
    • 13.4% reported severe symptoms
    • 7% reported no symptoms
  • 68% of students reported symptoms of depression
    • 34.8% reported mild symptoms, compared to a 21.7% average from 2015-2018
    • 33.4% reported moderate/severe symptoms, compared to a 9.7% average from 2015-2018
    • 32.2% reported minimal to no symptoms, compared to a 68.6% average from 2015-2018
Physical Activity:
  • The PFABS test showed physical activity among high school athletes surveyed decreased by over 50%, compared to data from 2015-2018
Health Related Quality of Life (measured on a scale of 0-100, where higher scores=higher quality of life):
  • Physical health: 82.6, compared to a 91.7 average from 2015-2018
  • Psychosocial health: 76.2, compared to a 90.4 average from 2015-2018
  • Overall health: 78.4, compared to a 90.9 average from 2015-2018

In addition, researchers compared health related quality of life average totals (physical health + psychosocial health + overall health) to those of healthy athletes, non-athletes, and athletes with severe concussion. Here’s that data:

  • Healthy athletes: 91
  • Athletes with severe concussion: 89
  • Non-athletes scored: 88
  • Student athletes in Wisconsin in May 2020: 79

As a whole, this report paints a persuasive picture: lockdown has a net negative effect on the physical and psychological wellbeing of student athletes in Wisconsin.

About This Study

A note of caution: this data is correlative, which means it does not prove school closures caused the reported symptoms. It does, however, show that a strong association exists between lockdown and the symptoms. To read a thorough explanation of the difference between correlation and causation, click here. To read a quick explainer on the subject, find it about halfway through our articles here and here, which are on completely different topics than coronavirus and high school athletes.

Implications for the Rest of the Country

With that said, the implications of this study for the rest of the country are clear. School closings may have an adverse impact on the mental and emotional health of student athletes around the country. It’s well known that regular physical activity has a positive effect on physical health. It’s also well known that regular physical activity and participation in team sports can boost self-esteem and decrease mental health symptoms in adolescents.

The scientists at the University of Wisconsin estimate that as many as 66,000 student athletes in their state are at increased risk of depression as a result of school closures. That’s about thirty-five percent of total student athletes in Wisconsin. Public data shows that close to eight million high school students in the U.S. participate in high school sports. If we use the numbers from Wisconsin as a model for the rest of the country, that means extended nationwide school closures could place close to three million high school students at increased risk for depression.

As policy makers, school administrators, and parents move forward and make final decisions about high school sports for the 2019-2020 school year, they should keep this data in mind. If schools need to stay closed to stop the spread of coronavirus, it’s incumbent upon adults to proactively safeguard the mental health of student athletes. Contingency plans will vary from state to state, district to district, and family to family.  But for the wellbeing of our student athletes, they should be fully fleshed out and ready to implement immediately, if and when the need arises.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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