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Study Finds Division I Athletes Have Stronger Mental Health Than Peers

Mental health is currently a hot topic that has especially manifested itself in the athletic world. At the Women’s Sports Foundation’s most recent Athlete Leadership Connection in October, we hosted a panel discussing mental health among champion athletes, and research published in November from the U.S. Center for Disease Control found that physical exercise tends to lighten mental health burdens.

But what about student-athletes? It would be easy to understand that those who have to balance a full load of college classes with commitment to their varsity sport would struggle with finding time to work on their mental health. However, a new study from the University of Wisconsin—Madison suggests the opposite. The research, which was published by the American Journal of Health Promotion in late December, found that Division I athletes reported stronger mental health than their non-athlete classmates.

The cross-sectional study analyzed 842 Division I athletes from the university and 1,322 non-athlete members of the student body and required them to complete a VR-12 survey, which assesses quality of physical and mental health. Varsity athletes reported an average VR-12 mental health score of 55.46 compared to the other groups, which included club athletes, intramural athletes, regular exercisers and physically inactive. It was no surprise, then, that the club athletes recorded the second-highest VR-12 mental health scores at 45.74, followed by intramural athletes, regular exercisers and the physically inactive at 45.46, 44.04 and 41.39, respectively. The study’s results said that this point difference qualifies as “significant.”

Traci Snedden, a professor of nursing at the university who led the study, said the reasoning behind these point gaps could be attributed to the additional resources that student-athletes have access to, such as tutors and psychologists. However, WSF’s research “Her Life Depends on It III” — which reviewed 1,500 existing and emerging research studies to determine the links between participation in physical activity and the health of American girls and women – stated that in multiple studies, physical activity itself has been found to be an antidepressant and leads to improved mental health.

The true reasoning behind the findings of the UW—Madison’s study could be a combination of the two. However, regardless of any differences in explanations, the underlying message remains that sport and physical activity are linked to improved mental health, even if you are surrounded by the other pressures that come with competing at the highest level of college athletics.