Teen concussions and mental illness: Is youth contact sport worth the risk?

A new inquiry investigating long-term effects of concussion and how sporting clubs and associations respond will be set up on Thursday.

A new inquiry investigating long-term effects of concussion and how sporting clubs and associations respond will be set up on Thursday. Photo: Getty

Concussion in sport has been making headlines, leading to growing debate over whether the benefits of youth sports are outweighed by the risks posed to young brains.

While sport offers young people a range of neurological, emotional and developmental benefits, the risk of injuries that jeopardise their long-term health is real, researchers wrote in an article published by the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday.

Alarmingly, the risk of depression and suicide is substantially higher among teens who have suffered concussions, the researchers led by University of the Sunshine Coast suicide prevention expert Dr Amanda Clacy said.

“Adolescents with a history of concussion have been found to be up to 3.3 times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime than their uninjured counterparts,” Dr Clacy and colleagues wrote.

The overlap in parts of the brain undergoing most development in an adolescent and the areas most affected by concussion mean the management of concussion in young Australians requires special consideration, the researchers said.

Current concussion management methods “do not have a strong evidence base in terms of neural recovery or appropriateness for the developmental uniqueness of adolescents”, the authors said.

Further research is “urgently needed”, they said.

This includes examining whether adolescents’ growing brains render them “more susceptible to emotional disturbances following concussion”, and finding out what can be done to make young people “more resilient to adverse and ongoing consequences of concussion”.

The risks and benefits of youth sport

Parents and players are being forced to weigh up the risks and benefits of contact sports in light of the ongoing debate about concussions.

Physical activity and sport offer significant benefits, with evidence showing that they can boost adolescent psychological health and help to combat depression, suicidality, anxiety and stress.

Participation in team sports is especially good at bolstering mental health by “facilitating social support and integration”, Dr Clacy and colleagues said.

However, injuries can derail mental and physical health.

“Unfortunately, the benefits of participation in sport and the associated risk of injury present potentially contrasting outcomes when it comes to the risk of developing a mood disorder,” Dr Clacy and colleagues wrote.

Concussion expert calls for contact sports to be banned

In February, Australia’s peak sporting body Sport Australia launched a  website designed to help parents, teachers and sporting clubs understand and deal with concussion.

One of the experts behind the site, Australian Institute of Sport chief medical officer Dr David Hughes, told The New Daily the health risks of not participating in sport outweighed those posed by concussion.

“I believe there is far more danger of harm to a child by not participating in sport,” Dr Hughes said.

“The greatest health challenge facing Australia is not concussion, it’s obesity and all the negative health consequences of inactivity.”

Concussion is “something that occurs in everyday life for children”, Dr Hughes said.

“The evidence is absolutely clear of the physical, psychological and emotional benefits of participation in team sport,” he said.

However, pioneering researcher Dr Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed by actor Will Smith in the 2015 film Concussion after the United States’ National Football League (NFL) attempted to bury his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy brain degeneration in NFL players, disagrees.

Children should be banned from playing contact sports, Dr Omalu told the Sun-Herald in August.

“It’s almost like child abuse to intentionally expose a child to injury. It is not right,” he said.

“Studies have been done in the US – in just one game of (American) football, a child receives about 50 blows. Some of them are like a car travelling at 30 miles an hour running into a brick wall.

“Your brain is 60-80 per cent water, it’s a very sensitive and vulnerable organ that floats freely inside your skull.

“There’s nothing holding it down. So every sudden change in motion, the brain jolts around in your skull.”

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