College Athletes Often Become Depressed Just Days After Suffering A Concussion, Study Finds

04/09/2015 02:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

When people talk about the relationship between football and concussions, the consequences always seem far off in the distant future. We think not of the immediate effects for a player who just received a blow to the head, but of the cognitive issues of former NFL players who retired long ago.

But a new study finds that concussions can affect the mood of the human mind within just a number of days, and they often do.

College athletes who have recently suffered a concussion appear remarkably likely to experience a near-immediate rise in depressive thoughts, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Athletic Training.

The researchers compared 84 college athletes who had been diagnosed with concussions to a control group of 42 athletically active undergraduates with no recent concussion history. Both groups were asked to twice undergo the well-regarded Beck Depression Inventory Fast-Screen.

The first test acted as a baseline for the authors, and they second gauged depressive symptoms after a concussion or, in the control group’s case, later in the school year.

What the researchers found was startling. Twenty percent of concussed athletes showed significant signs of increased depression after a concussion, while only 5 percent of the control group showed increased signs over time.

Non-white athletes, in particular, struggled with with post-concussion depression, the researchers said.

“Considering that these athletes will likely have multiple concussions in their careers and that a large percentage already displayed clinically significant depression after 1 isolated concussion, our results are concerning,” the authors wrote in the report.

Once someone has experienced a depressive episode, subsequent episodes are much more likely. Studies have found that if a man or woman suffers just one depressive episode in his or her lifetime, there is a 50 percent chance he or she will suffer another. If they suffer a second, there is an 80 percent chance they’ll suffer a third.

In a phone conversation with The Huffington Post, Peter Arnett, a professor of psychology at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors, said he hoped the research would lend credence to anecdotal evidence found in the media that concussions can cause depressive thoughts. But even he himself was shocked by the degree of difference between the two groups.

“I must say, I was surprised to see [the rise in depressive symptoms] was so dramatic, especially relative to the control group,” he said.

The symptoms appeared quickly, too. Roughly 71 percent of the concussed athletes were tested within 5 days of a team physician or athletic trainer diagnosing them with a concussion.

“We’re finding this among young, healthy athletes, and they’re still showing signs of depression in the first week,” Arnett said.

Among concussed athletes, 20 percent showed increased signs of depression, 10 percent showed decreased signs and 70 percent showed no real change. Among the control group, 5 percent showed signs of an increase, 7 percent showed signs of a decrease and 88 percent showed no real change.

It’s possible the increase in depressive symptoms among concussed athletes could have been caused by factors other than the concussion, such as the any number of pressures college athletes face over the course of the school year. But the drastic difference between the concussed group and control group would seem to indicate some correlation between the concussion and subsequent depressive thoughts.

Asked whether he felt his research was enough to convince parents to take a second look at letting their children play high contact sports, Arnett said the research was already there. He's just adding to the pile.

‘There’s plenty out there to make parents worried about having kids play football or hockey,” Arnett said. “There’s [already] enough data out there to make anybody concerned.”

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