Substance Use Disorders In Professional Athletes
Around the world, participating in and viewing sports brings people together and usually creates a competitive but good-spirited environment. Many people look up to professional athletes as role models or for inspiration, as their hard work, dedication, and extra perks like fame and the ability to earn a lot of money are appealing and admirable by many. However, professional athletes are not exempt from succumbing to drug or alcohol abuse. Just like any other disease, anyone can develop a substance use disorder, despite their income, ambition, or talent. Sometimes the pressure placed on athletes can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Fortunately, there is rehab for professional athletes that can help them get back on a path towards health and success.
For many professional athletes, training begins at a very young, with some even starting their sport in grade school. As they grow older and make the decision to pursue their sport as their career, it becomes one of the most important elements of their life, taking up a lot of time and energy. Research has found that drug abuse can occur in all sports and at all levels of competition. Some of the reasons that athletic life can lead to drug abuse is: “performance enhancement, to self-treat otherwise untreated mental illness, and to deal with stressors, such as pressure to perform, injuries, physical pain, and retirement from sport.” Compared to other career paths, athletes are often required to retire at an earlier age. This may trigger feelings of depression and worthlessness in some, leading them to abuse drugs or alcohol to cope.
Mental health disorders like depression do not only occur after retirement. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 5 American adults live with a mental illness. A professional athlete suffering from a mental illness may postpone seeking treatment or attempt to hide it from their peers because of the unfortunate stigma that still follows mental health disorders. Research has found that athletes are significantly less likely to receive treatment for underlying mental illnesses like depression compared to non-athletes. This may be because they view their illness as a weakness and attempt to self-medicate. Untreated mental illness is associated with substance abuse. Because of the nature of their job, any physical illness or injury receives comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation, but mental health is not treated the same. Despite the fact that rehab for professional athletes is available, some may try to hide their mental health or substance use disorder until it has caused major damage to their life.
Studies have uncovered that there is an increased consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs in high-performance athletes, compared to the general population. Fame and disposable income make accessing drugs very easy for professional athletes, and what may start as a time of “letting loose” and partying after their season, game, or competition, can turn into an addiction if not monitored closely. Alcohol and drugs that are used in the nightlife scene are not the only reason that rehab for professional athletes is necessary. The abuse of steroids has long been an issue in the athletic community and can have a long list of adverse effects.
Steroid Abuse In Professional Athletes
Appearance and performance enhancing drugs (APEDs) differ from other drugs like cocaine and marijuana by the fact that they do not produce a euphoric high. People who use anabolic-androgenic steroids to enhance their athletic performance or to improve muscle mass can cause irreversible damage to their bodies and develop a substance use disorder. When used by prescription and under medical supervision, anabolic steroids can be used to treat certain types of anemia, to treat certain types of breast cancer, and to help patients gain weight or muscle after a serious illness, injury, or from unexplained medical reasons. It becomes abuse when someone starts using this drug outside of a doctor’s orders, often for vanity reasons or to try and get an advantage in athletic performance.
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There are severe consequences for professional athletes that are caught using APEDs. Individuals can be suspended or banned from their sport, putting their entire livelihood at risk. Despite the risks, athletes still abuse these drugs, potentially to try and deal with the pressure to perform. In one study, researchers asked 198 Olympic athletes if they would use performance enhancing drugs to achieve victory, without the risk of getting caught, hypothetically. Out of the 198, 195 said they would use the drugs. This demonstrates the motivation athletes have to achieve victory at any cost, ignoring the detriments that performance enhancing drugs can have on the body.
Anabolic steroids can be taken orally, applied to the skin in cream or gel form, or injected intramuscularly. Users may practice “plateauing,” a technique where steroids are staggered, overlapped, or substituted with another type of steroid to avoid developing tolerance. Steroids are used to increase lean muscle mass and strength and some believe that they make muscles recover faster from injury, although this has not been proven. Depending on how long someone is abusing steroids, side effects may subside when they stop taking the drug or become permeant. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, side effects include:
- High blood pressure
- Blood clots
- Heart attacks
- Artery damage
- Short stature (if taken by adolescents)
- Tendon injury
- Peliosis hepatis
- Severe acne and cysts
- Oily scalp and skin
- Abscess at injection site
- Excessive body hair growth
- Male-pattern baldness
- Voice deepening
- Decreased breast size
- Coarse skin
- Shrinking of the testicles
- Male-pattern baldness
- Testicular cancer
- Decreased sperm production
- Enlarged breasts
Rehab For Professional Athletes
Professional athletes have considerations that the general population do not have when deciding on a treatment center for a drug or alcohol program. Confidentiality is a major concern, as professional athletes may fear their reputation being harmed if it is public knowledge that they struggle with substance abuse. Professional athletes may need a facility with specific amenities, such as gyms, pools, or tennis courts to maintain their physical ability. Those who have had success in their athletic career may also desire a facility that has luxury amenities and will work with their strict diets and other personal requirements.
A rehab option for professional athletes will likely be a form of luxury rehab, that may also be a destination rehab or an executive rehab. Staff at luxury rehabs deal with celebrities and professionals who require total confidentiality and can leave their patients assured that their stay will be confidential. Staff will likely be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, legally bounding them to secrecy.
Luxury rehabs offer high-end amenities and comfort, and with research that should always be conducted before choosing an inpatient rehab facility, patients should be able to find a treatment center. Private rooms, private therapy, 24-hour medical care, and on-site chefs are all services often found at luxury rehab. These rehabs may be located in exotic and beautiful locations, offering patients a chance to separate from triggers found back home and solely focus on their recovery. Methods like adventure therapy and animal-assisted therapy may also be offered, along with traditional methods.
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Treatment For Professional Athletes
At the start of the treatment process, a plan will be formulated on how to achieve detox, treatment, and a successful aftercare plan. Depending on the substance, pharmacologic interventions may be implemented to ease the process. For those addicted to a drug like opioids or alcohol, a medically supervised detox will be conducted to start ridding the body of the substance it is dependent on. Medical professionals can offer medications and care to make the detox safer and easier. It is never recommended to try and detox alone, as detoxing from certain substances can be fatal.
Counseling and psychiatric support will be a major facet of rehab for professional athletes. Some research has found success with the counseling approach of motivational interviewing. This approach helps patients change their behavior by exploring their motives. Along with clinician empathy, research published by the National Institutes of Health states that part of this tactic includes, “Developing discrepancies between where the athlete wants to go in life after sport and the impact that continued use of the substance might have on those goals. During this process, the provider helps athletes to clarify conflict among their values, motives, interest, and behaviors.”
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Feelings of despair and shame often hold people back from seeking treatment. They try to handle it on their own or hide it from others, but this method has been tried and failed by millions. There are numerous options when choosing a rehab facility. Don’t wait any longer, reach out to a treatment provider for a private conversation on what your options are.