I saw the interview of University of Washington wide receiver Isaiah Renfro on SportsCenter recently while I was working out at the gym. It caught my attention so much that I realized I had stopped working out while he was talking. Renfro’s story is an important one for young athletes, so I knew I needed to discuss it in my latest newspaper column.
Calling it “one of the toughest times I’ve had to endure in my life,” University of Washington wide receiver Isaiah Renfro quit football last week to fully recover from depression and anxiety.
In his one season with the Huskies, Renfro caught 13 passes for 178 yards. He missed spring practice after what head coach Chris Peterson at the time called “personal things he’s kind of taking care of.” In his announcement on Twitter, Renfro acknowledged he was admitted into a hospital for treatment.
Why depression and anxiety might be more common in sports than we realize
Dr. Erin Shannon, Doctor of Clinical Psychology and Director of Mercy Sports Psychology in St. Louis, Missouri, told me that mental health issues like depression and anxiety are likely more common in high school and college sports than most people realize. Athletes are reluctant to admit that they have a problem.
“We know they tend to hide any physical conditions just to stay on the field,” Shannon explained. “Anything that would be considered a mental weakness – be it anxiety, depression, sleeping problems, focus issues – you can just multiply that times ten. If a kid is struggling with something that you can’t see on an MRI or an x-ray, it’s going to be very difficult for him to bring that to a coach or somebody on his team and talk about it.”
Football players might struggle to admit symptoms of depression or anxiety
In an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter, Renfro explained why he didn’t want to tell anyone he was struggling. He pointed to the “persona” of football, where players must be strong. They can’t cry. They can’t be sad. They can’t have feelings.
Dr. Shannon agrees that in aggressive sports like football, athletes don’t want to be seen as weak or soft.
Physical or behavior changes in athletes battling depression or anxiety
If young athletes won’t open up about these issues, parents and coaches must try to identify players at risk. Dr. Shannon observed that parents or coaches of a young athlete battling depression or anxiety might notice physical changes such as weight loss. They might see behavioral changes such as a normally mild-mannered kid becoming more aggressive. A normally quiet adolescent might seem angrier.
Renfro described his changes on Twitter. “I wasn’t the same, I lost love for the game I’ve been playing ever since I could walk, and it seemed more like a job to me than fun. Waking up in the morning got harder and harder, till it got to the point where I didn’t want to wake up at all.”
Convincing athletes to talk and admit their struggles
Dr. Shannon has witnessed the treatment of these conditions evolve over the last decade or two. She points to the mental health professionals now commonly available to professional and college athletes. Yet we must do a better job convincing athletes to admit their struggles so that we can get them the necessary help.
Dr. Shannon suggested that coaches and the team’s medical staff should talk to the athletes at the beginning of each season. Just like we teach proper nutrition, hydration and rest, we need to educate them about the symptoms of depression and anxiety. We need to convince them to watch out for and help each other.
Shining a light on mental health concerns in sports
Dr. Shannon believes attention on these problems can bring about positive changes for the mental health of athletes. “When you normalize it, and when you bring it into the light, then you’re setting an example that this is just like anything else. You got to take care of your mind just like you have to take care of your body.”
Renfro hopes that by publicly admitting his struggles, not only will he get better, but it would also help other athletes fighting depression and anxiety.
“This isn’t the end of me, just the end of a certain chapter,” he tweeted.
Isaiah Renfro’s retirement shouldn’t just raise eyebrows. It must raise awareness of a serious issue.
Do you think mental health receives enough attention in sports? What can we do to help athletes feel comfortable admitting these struggles? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Also listen to these discussions on recent episodes of The Dr. David Geier Show:
Episode 231: Do athletes resist asking for help with mental health issues?
Episode 172: How can we better support the mental health of college athletes?
Episode 86: How common are depression and suicides among athletes?
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the June 8, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
Interview with Isaiah Renfro. ESPN SportsCenter. May 31, 2016.
Chris Petersen says Huskies WR Isaiah Renfro out for spring practice while tending to personal matter. By Christian Caple. The News Tribune. April 8, 2016.