Retired athletes are especially susceptible to substance abuse. If you’re a current or former athlete, you know how much the love of the game can consume your life. This increases tenfold for serious and professional athletes who train almost daily. It can become all-consuming. You sleep and breathe your sport. So what happens when that all goes away?

When one thinks about the term “athlete”, the image of peak human health and fitness may come to mind. These people make a career out of being in shape and valuing their physical well-being, so they must be the last group of people who’d risk using illicit substances… right? It’s this mentality that causes a lot of suffering to go unnoticed and untreated, because surprisingly, current and former athletes are some of the most at-risk when it comes to addiction. The high standards and immense pressure to perform during an athlete’s career may even lead to them turning to illicit substances early on, effectively causing them to spiral. This may inevitably lead to them being forced to retire earlier than they anticipated.

Why are athletes susceptible to substance abuse following retirement?

Many people say a sports star will die twice. The first time? At retirement. Leaving the game that consumed their life for so long can be emotionally and mentally traumatic for a lot of retired athletes. It’s not an easy transition, especially if something like an injury or drug abuse forces them into an early retirement. If their early retirement is the result of an injury, they may have been prescribed painkillers to help treat any pain they may be dealing with. And as we know, prescription painkillers are highly addictive and can be a gateway drug to other opiates such as heroin. When one dedicated their life completely to a sport, losing that attachment can feel like they have lost their entire identity. They must learn how to “re-assimilate” into society as a regular person, and this can be challenging for many. They may even mourn the loss as one might grieve over the death of a loved one.

Retired Athletes can struggle with Mental Illness

This grief stemming from the loss of their career could burgeon into something deeper, manifesting itself as a long-term mental illness. Multimedia football journalist Alfie Potts Harmer reported that athletes have among the highest rates of mental illness with as many as 25% experiencing depression. Despite this, athletes are often viewed as “having it all.” They’re successful, famous, rich, and beloved by thousands. But this does not mean they do not struggle with things like depression and anxiety, which often lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Former Olympic swimmer and one of the most renowned and accomplished athletes of all time, Michael Phelps, recently spoke out about his battle with mental illness, stating “I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore.” Prior to this, Phelps had been arrested for driving under the influence and had other problems stemming from alcohol abuse.

And Phelps isn’t alone. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard was famously quoted saying: “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” He was documented to have many severe bouts of depression following his retirement from the sport.

Retirement can exacerbate an existing mental illness, or lead to a manifestation of one that wasn’t there before in a former athlete. In an article from the Huffington Post, a group of retired athletes shared their struggle with mental health following an elective or forced retirement. Former AFL (Australian Football League) star Barry Hall ended his career in 2011, and cited struggling with the lack of routine following retirement, which led to a bout of fairly life-altering depression. “I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t answer mates’ phone calls, I was eating terribly, drinking heavily. A tough time,” he lamented. “And look, I didn’t know at that stage it was a form of depression.”

Mental Illness leads to Substance Abuse in Retired Athletes

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reported that there is a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances” and that mental health disorder patients make up 38 percent of alcohol, 44 percent of cocaine, and 40 percent of cigarette consumption, and around 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse. Mental illness and substance abuse disorders together are referred to as co-occurring disorders, which means that one may have been brought on by the other but both play a role in exacerbating each other. In other words, if the mental illness goes untreated and gets worse, the substance abuse disorder will likely catch up in an effort to cope, and vice versa.

Substance Abuse following an Injury

In a study done at Washington University, it was found that around 52 percent of the retired NFL players reported using prescription painkillers during their careers and 71 percent of that group admitted to misusing the drugs. Following an injury, athletes may turn to illicit substances in order to speed up their recovery or ease the pain. Vicodin and OxyContin are a couple of the most commonly abused prescription painkillers in the world of sports (and outside). Although prescription drugs can help athletes manage their pain in the short term, research clearly shows that the use of these substances can lead to addiction.

What can be done about Substance Abuse in Retired Athletes?

Recovery is completely possible for former athletes struggling with addiction. Some may benefit from a 12-Step program, and one-on-one counseling is also extremely helpful. There are different forms of psychotherapy in use in addiction treatment dealing with retired athletes, including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, motivational interviewing therapy, and interpersonal therapy. With the right support system and proper intervention, retired athletes can return to a normal, happy life, free from addiction.

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