Mental Health Mañana: The Sports-fueled Psyche and the Suicide Squeeze

APPARENTLY, THERE IS QUITE A LOT OF CRYING IN BASEBALL. But is there less than there is in real life?

It's only a game, dammit.

Although many parents may feel like putting themselves out of their own misery while watching what seems like the 49th inning of the 57th Little League game of the month, there are at least a handful of researchers out there who think that playing sports is good for the mental health of those young folk out on the field. In The Journal of Pediatric Behavior and Development, Lindsay Babiss and James Gangwisch published an article entitled Sports participation as a protective factor against depression and suicidal ideation in Adolescents as mediated by Self-Esteem and Social Support. In this article, the authors take it as a given–from other studies, albeit–that sports are protective against depression and suicidal ideation, and then go on to determine what aspects of sports participation  actually mediate the improved mental health.

(Apparently, the neither of the authors ever walked in the last run, missed the winning shot, or accidentally scored a goal against his or her own team.)

In the end, the authors conclude that sports participation is protective against depression and suicidal ideation, and that middle school and high school aged children should be encouraged to engage in sports.They draw this conclusion based on their results: that for at least a small percentage of  adolescents–about 12%–that sports participation is at least a part of what kept them from plunging into the depths of despair, or from thinking about jumping from bridge.

Do the results merit this conclusion? In other words, it possible that this is correlation and not causation? Exercise, seemingly more than anything else in the past ten years, has been touted as a panacea. Google the terms “exercise and depression” and you will find no end of articles , from the tabloids to the scholarly journals, stating that a good run is  great medicine. Its benefits range from serving as a mildly beneficial  therapeutic adjunct to being that magic bullet that treats many ills, including  and especially, depression.

But are the authors engaging in that most of common of epidemiological mistakes, confusing correlation with causation? Certainly, with suicide being among the top 5 causes of adolescent death, this is no trivial matter. I am sure that there are a lot of parents that would care greatly whether or not the slavish devotion our society has to youth sports will actually make life better (whatever that means) for their children. I ask these questions for two reasons: 1) as a parent, I am concerned for my children’s happiness, and 2) at least on recent article has cast doubt on the whole exercise-depression question. It seems, at least to one group of researchers, that exercise doesn’t help depression, but that less depressed people exercise more. There is, of course, no doubt that it’s better to be a fit depressive than an unfit one, but let’s not ascribe more benefits to exercise than it really has.

“Whenever I feel like exercise I lie down until the feeling passes.”
–Robert Maynard Hutchins

2 responses to “Mental Health Mañana: The Sports-fueled Psyche and the Suicide Squeeze

  1. James Gangwisch

    This is a good point. It is quite possible that individuals with more social support and lower likelihood of suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts are also more likely to participate in sports.
    Jim Gangwisch

  2. Lindsay Babiss

    Correlation versus causation is always a good question to ask. Of course as researchers we always hope to discover causation yet it is not always the case. As with any research, there are limitations to this study which motivate us to do further research with the hope of discovering a more solid argument of causation.

    For the record i admit that in middle school i accidentally scored a goal against my own team.

    -Lindsay Babiss

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