UW Health study: School closings, sports cancellations led to rise in student-athlete depression

COVID-19 has kept athletes off the field and out of gyms, and a new study says that time away is affecting more than just their physical health.

Dr. Tim McGuine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison surveyed over 3,000 student-athletes from all over the state and found that school closings and sport cancellations have led to spikes in anxiety and depression.

Compared to historical data from past studies, McGuine’s group found that the rate of mild to severe depression has increased from 31 to 68 percent, and estimates 66 thousand student athletes are at risk for depression. Local experts say the loss of a core piece of students’ daily routines can have profound consequences.

“When we think about some of the things that have an immediate impact on physical health, things like exercise, nutrition and hydration, sleep, these things have a significant impact on mental health as well,” Gundersen Health System EAP consultant Meg Jelen said. “So when people lose that ability to have that outlet, it not only challenges the physical body it challenges their mental health as well.”

It’s recommended that parents keep an eye on their kids and see if they’re showing signs of depression like a lower mood, lack of motivation, and lack of interest in things they used to love.

The WIAA, meanwhile, has to weigh the mental health benefits that sports would bring against the physical risk of spreading COVID-19. Right now, McGuine and the rest of the WIAA’s Sports Medical Advisory Committee can see fall sports happening.

“I think we can accommodate some sports, getting forward and getting schools in,” McGuine said.

“There will need to be hygiene, disinfecting, some social distancing, potentially practicing in pods, ideally coaches wearing masks when they can’t socially distance,” said Dr. Kevin Walter, another member of the advisory committee.

Those health and safety practices Walter alludes to are included in the WIAA’s recent sport-specific guidelines for summer coaching contact days that start in July. The La Crosse School District has said it won’t be holding any contact activities while the county is in severe risk for COVID-19 spread, while other schools said they’ll use these guidelines or even go further than them.

For instance, Westby and Alma Center-Lincoln will open their weight room and gyms but limit the amount of kids at one time. Lincoln also plans to only allow partner use of shared equipment, and cleaning that equipment after each practice.