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Athletes and mental health sufferers unite!

Posted Nov 26 2010 12:00am
I was listening in the car this morning to a radio interview with a sports psychologist. He was discussing the case of an internationally competitive skier who had suffered extensive head trauma. The psychologist mentioned that after major accidents like these there is often Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as the actual physical trauma.

The sports psychologist treats his athletes using visualizations and other psychological techniques. It occurred to me while he was talking that with professional athletes, the focus is always on getting them back to their former level of fitness and ability to compete. It seems to be universally expected. Athletes are considered society's "winners." All kinds of "right thinking" behavior is credited to them, from being exceptionally focused and mature, to being "intrinsically better" than the next guy, who is roundly criticized for quitting athletics early despite obvious talent.

You probably can tell that I have limited tolerance for putting jocks on Mount Olympus. What irks me is that positive expectations are lavished on jocks and the same cannot be said for those suffering from mental illness. Where are the sports psychologists for our relatives? Our relatives, too, have to get back in the game.

The radio interview discussed the long term prognosis for returning to the sport for the worst kinds of injuries, and the psychologist said that it can be done. He made it sound like it wasn't even such a big deal. In several cases he cited, athletes even managed to surpass their previous records. The psychologist mentioned that PTSD and subsequent recovery can be delayed by people around the athlete, who, in their worried state, actually make the athlete doubt his ability to get back in the game. (That would be the high expressed emotion that I have referred to elsewhere on this blog.)

The sports psychologist discussed the importance of allowing time to heal, and not rushing back too soon because, thinking you are well before you actually are is not a good strategy. I have heard that, too, from psychiatrists, but the difference is that they were coming from a place of pessimism, not positivism. They believe schizophrenia is chronic and, of course, the medications treat everybody as if they were chronic.

So, the psychiatric patient is not getting the kind of treatment that star athletes get. The typical psychiatric patient gets lowered expectations, no hope of full recovery and ability to surpass the previous self. Nobody clues in the family that being worried hinders the individual's recovery.

What's so special about athletes that we can't apply the same treatment to those suffering from mental health problems?
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