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Young Athletes Need a Whole-Body Checkup

Young athletes are less likely to ask for help when they're having suicidal thoughts. (Michael Carter)
Young athletes are less likely to ask for help when they're having suicidal thoughts. (Michael Carter)
July 25, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Student athletes experience mental health issues at about the same rate as the general student body – 30 percent.

About a third of those students will get help, but only 10 percent of their athlete counterparts will.

In November 2014, two local high school athletes died by suicide in the Kansas City area, and that prompted health providers at Children's Mercy Hospital to try to find a way to identify those who are at risk.

Dr. Shayla Sullivant, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City says the Sports Medicine Department, led by Dr. Kevin Latz, started administering suicide screenings for teenage patients.

She says you can't look at a young person and assume that because he or she is fit and active that there aren't issues that could lead that young person down a terrible path.

"This is not typical in the sports medicine world,” Sullivant stresses. “It's a very common thing to focus on, you know, your ACL injury or your ankle injury, but I think that our providers have a very clear understanding that you have to treat the whole person."

Several organizations are taking steps to address athlete suicides, including the NCAA, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) and universities, with programs such as Athletes Connected.

Sullivant says there can be an attitude in sports that you need to stay tough, and that helps a person push through some difficulties, but she says it also can be a problem.

"Sometimes that can become confused for the student athlete, because what we really need for them to do is come forward and ask for help if they're struggling with the conditions that lead to suicide,” she explains. “So if they're struggling with depression, we need to know that in advance and do some early intervention so we help them get on a good path."

Sullivant stresses knowing that a young person is struggling is the first step, and the priority needs to be getting patients professional help.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO