Prevalence of clinically elevated depressive symptoms in college athletes and differences by gender and sport

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Background There are approximately 400 000 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student athletes and 5.7 million high school student athletes competing each year. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the depression prevalence rate for young adults, which ranges from 10% to 85% across studies, is higher than that of other age groups. Given the relatively high prevalence of depression in individuals of collegiate age in the general population, the prevalence of depression among athletes in this age group warrants further study. This multiyear study examined the prevalence of depressive symptoms in college athletes, as well as demographic factors related to increased or decreased rates of depressive symptoms by gender and sport. Objective To describe the prevalence of depression symptoms among NCAA division I student athletes at a single institution over 3 consecutive years. Method Participants (n=465) completed a battery of measures during their yearly spring sports medicine physical across 3 consecutive years. The battery included the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) and a demographic questionnaire, administered during the course of routine sports medicine physical examinations. Differences in depressive symptoms prevalence and relative risk ratios were calculated by gender and sport. Results The prevalence rate for a clinically relevant level of depressive symptoms, as measured on the CES-D (CES-D ≥16), was 23.7%. A moderate to severe level of depressive symptoms was reported by 6.3%. There was a significant gender difference in prevalence of depressive symptoms, χ2 (1)=7.459, p=0.006, with female athletes exhibiting 1.844 times the risk of male athletes for endorsing clinically relevant symptoms. Conclusions The CES-D identified clinically relevant levels of depressive symptoms in nearly one-quarter of college student athletes in this large cross-sectional sample. Female college athletes reported significantly more depressive symptoms than males. Findings suggest that depression prevalence among college athletes is comparable to that found in the general college population. In light of these findings, sports medicine personnel may wish to implement depression screening and assessment of depressive symptoms across sports to identify at-risk athletes. Risk factors related to depression in college athletes warrant additional study.

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British Journal of Sports Medicine

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