A recent survey by The Recovery Village shows how different today’s college students view mental health issues compared to those from decades ago.

Differences in generations are noticeable throughout any culture. People who are older might enjoy a slower pace than younger people. Seniors might prefer to use landline telephones instead of cell phones, or they might find their entertainment value in watching television while teenagers and young adults prefer browsing the internet.

The divides are not restricted to just how people act, either, but also how they think.

The Recovery Village conducted a survey about the connection between sports and mental health, but some of the results to questions indicated a significant split between older and younger participants when it came to acknowledging mental illness.

The Impact of Sports on Mental Health: From Each Generation’s View

Enjoyable activities are one of the best ways to improve a person’s mental health because it can be a distraction from any anxiety, stress or depression that someone might suffer from. However, participating in activities can become part of those struggles.

The Anxiety-Free Child program details ways in which playing sports can lessen or make worse a child’s anxiety. Physical activity such as organized sports or even pick-up games can improve a person’s mood due to socialization and releasing feel-good chemicals in the body. Additionally, improving skills can increase a person’s self-esteem.

However, participation in sports, especially at the organized level, can be the instigator of stress or add to negative feelings someone might already have due to something else. The “athlete” portion of “student-athlete” can lead to an overload of responsibilities, place people in situations where they might not excel as well as their peers, or result in stress from others due to poor performance. When student-athletes rely on their on-the-field abilities to maintain scholarships, they might incur stress or anxiety from playing sports. Additionally, they might have parents who are pushing them to continue playing sports despite their heart not being in it.

The Recovery Village’s survey results seem to coincide with the notion that participating in sports can either help or hinder a person’s mental wellness. Additionally, these results move beyond the scope of the connection between sports and mental health and more into the generational divide that exists throughout the world.

When asked in the survey if playing sports assisted in dealing with stress, anxiety or depression, 77.37 percent of current or former student-athletes responded that sports helped reduce these issues. Around 17 percent said they didn’t have a mental illness when they were a student-athlete, and 5.35 percent said playing sports did not help.

While sports can certainly help people with their mental health, how likely are these activities to have a negative impact? Nearly half of all respondents reported that sports were not the cause of the stress, anxiety, or depression that they suffered from during high school and college. However, 32 percent said playing sports did add to or create a mental health issue and 18.52 percent said they did not have a mental illness when they were a student-athlete.

However, the percentages changed a bit when looking just at specific age demographics:

  • Of 18- to 24-year-old survey participants, around 82 percent said playing sports helped with their mental health. Around 17 percent said sports didn’t help and only 5.13 percent said they did not have anxiety, depression or severe stress.
  • Of respondents ages 45-54, around 22 percent said they did not have a mental illness. By comparison, nearly 30 percent of respondents ages 55 and up responded the same way.
  • Of the youngest demographic to participate, ages 18-24, 43.59 percent responded that sports increased their stress or anxiety while 35.9 percent said it did not. Around 20 percent said they did not suffer from a mental illness when in school.
  • Respondents age 55 and up again were more likely than younger respondents to say that they did not have a mental illness when playing sports in school. Around 26 percent said there was no stress, anxiety or depression to improve or worsen during this time.

While most younger people believe that participating in sports can affect a person’s mental health, the survey results show that older generations are less likely to have an opinion at all because of how they view mental health in general.

Why Do Some Older People Not Recognize Mental Illnesses?

A study published in the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health examined why different age groups have such varying views of anxiety, depression and other mental health topics. The study asked participants to label a list of symptoms as either for anxiety, depression or both. The study found that “Older adults were less accurate and more likely than younger adults to label symptoms as neither anxiety nor depression.”

So while many of the older survey respondents said they did not have anxiety or depression in school, they might not realize the signs and symptoms of these issues.

Numerous organizations are working toward improving the awareness of mental health disorders, especially for seniors. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that close to one-fifth of people ages 55 or older have a mental illness. According to Mental Health America, more than 2 million Americans ages 65 and older suffer from depression. Additionally, close to 70 percent of those in this age bracket have little or no knowledge of depression, and older adults are more likely than any other age group to live with depression without seeking professional help.

Providing better mental health care access to seniors is a progressive step toward improved treatment. However, educating this age group might be the most important part of the process. When they were in college, they might have experienced signs of anxiety or depression and disregarded it as nothing more than fleeting moments of sadness or stress. Understanding now what the symptoms are for anxiety and depression can lead to better care for seniors, and more encourage compassion and understanding toward those who do struggle with mental illnesses.

Devin Golden
Editor – Devin Golden
Devin Golden has worked for various print and digital news organizations. Devin's family has been affected by addiction and mental health disorders, which is a large part of why he wants to help others who have either directly or indirectly been affected by these diseases. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.