Logan Martin knows firsthand the debilitating effects of anxiety and depression.

On the field, the 17-year-old from Dover-Foxcroft is a dynamic football player who compiled over 1,700 all-purpose yards and scored 31 touchdowns for Foxcroft Academy as a junior. He’s earned a 3.4 GPA and is being recruited by college football programs.

Foxcroft Academy’s Logan Martin worries about the prospect of a canceled high school football season. “Family and friends know that without the game I have struggled with my mental health,” he posted on Twitter. “Football is what makes me want to wake up. It is what makes me want to get A’s and B’s in school.” Photo courtesy of Logan Martin

But away from sports, he’s struggled with anxiety since middle school. He openly admits to having panic attacks, which then often lead to bouts of depression, even with medication for anxiety and seeing a therapist weekly.

Like so many others who are passionate about high school sports, Martin is deeply concerned about the potential mental health toll on teenagers if they are once again sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I worry about others, just as much, if not more, than myself,” Martin said. “I’ve watched players on my team who were getting Ds and Fs in school, then finding football, loving it, and changing grades to Bs and As, and all of a sudden they have goals.”

Martin’s worries reverberate among administrators, coaches and other athletes. They emphasize that athletics enhance social and emotional health – and are concerned of potential negative consequences for teenagers if games cannot be played.

High school sports in Maine have been shut down since March in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Maine Principals’ Association, school superintendents and various state agencies have been grappling with how to reintroduce interscholastic sports during the pandemic. The MPA said it will decide by Thursday on which sports, if any, can be played this fall.

“If we don’t have a season, you have to keep in mind the mental health of the students,” Martin added. “It’s my opinion, but I feel my mental health and players on my team’s mental health, and the effects it will cause, will be greater than the risks of us getting the coronavirus. If we don’t have sports, I guarantee we’ll notice a drop in attendance numbers and a drop in overall GPA of students, and I think that will be a bigger risk to take than it is to play football or a fall sport and to see where the virus goes.”

Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director for interscholastic activities, said a major consideration as it tries to salvage some sort of fall season is the “social and emotional well-being for these kids. We know the importance that these teams play in the overall role of education.”

Martin said he was prompted to make his personal story public after reading comments from administrators after the MPA decided Tuesday to delay its decision on the fall season. In a post to his Twitter account, Martin said, “Family and friends know that without the game, I have struggled with my mental health. Football is what makes me want to wake up. It is what makes me want to get A’s and B’s in school. It is what makes me want to have a plan in life and pursue my goals, and I know a lot of players that can agree with me.”

Biddeford High senior field hockey standout Abby Allen can relate.

“Especially for kids like me, who sports are our lives and we live off sports,” Allen said. “Field hockey has been my life for years and year and years, and my senior season (gets) ruined by this? It would break my heart.”

Biddeford High field hockey standout Abby Allen says, “It would break my heart” if the fall season is called off. She worries about the emotional toll a canceled season would have on teammates. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Allen has already lost out on a key season of club competition because Maine Elite Field Hockey’s programming was halted in the spring. An NCAA Division I recruit, she hasn’t been able to make in-person college visits. For now, she worries about the impact a lost or postponed season would have on teammates.

“I do worry for some. Because they love field hockey, because that’s where they get most of the team bonding, their friends, and they feel like they’re in a new family because of sports,” Allen said.

Sports provide or support several key components of good mental health, said Cynthia Erdley, a professor of psychology at the University of Maine who has taught the psychology of adolescence since 1994.

“For many students, sports are a great outlet in terms of dealing with stress and reducing anxiety,” Erdley said. “They have a real sense of purpose, common goals, being with their teammates and that camaraderie.”

Athletes, as well as coaches, are currently caught in an uneasy position of not knowing what will happen, or how long the pandemic will disrupt their daily routines.

“I would be particularly concerned with self-esteem, identity, depression, more of those internalizing types of disorders, because there is a real sense of loss and uncertainty,” Erdley said.

“I think (losing sports) will have strong effects in a negative way, long term, and not knowing what’s going on doesn’t help,” said Maranacook boys’ soccer coach Don Beckwith, who is a clinical case manager in the mental health unit of the Maine State Prison. “Adults need to step up and make decisions. They need to make them earlier so kids aren’t waiting at the last bell.”

A survey of 3,243 student-athletes in Wisconsin, conducted by physicians, child health experts and researchers from UW Health and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that approximately 68 percent reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention.

“I really believe team sports are needed more in this world than ever before,” Beckwith said.

Without medical intervention, feelings of anxiety and depression can manifest into dangerous outcomes, from self-abuse, substance abuse and suicide, Erdley said.

“Sadly yes, if adolescents are having increases in anxiety and depression, there are many studies that are looking at motivations for self-harm and some of it is basically transferring mental pain to physical pain and then having relief … and self-harm behavior is one of the strongest predictors of suicide behavior,” Erdley said, adding, “Substance abuse is also sometimes used as a form of self-medication to help (people) escape, cope, and if someone is under the influence, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

South Portland High football coach Aaron Filieo said he doubts intramural-style activities will be an effective alternative to interscholastic sports. The talented athletes with fiscal means will join a club sports team, he predicts. Others will be left out.

“A disenfranchised kid, he’s going to go get a job to make some money – and I’m basing this on what happened this spring – and slowly stop going to school,” Filieo said. “We had that happen, and the thought of having football brought them back, they finally went back and started attending online sessions and working out at home.

“But if the fall season is canceled, they’ll drop out, or they’ll become depressed and then they’re going to self medicate, and we’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands and that’s going to be long-term, significant negative impacts on our community.”

Cape Elizabeth junior Caden McDuffie, a football player, doesn’t discount that there is a risk of contracting COVID-19. But he points out that Maine has among the fewest active cases in the nation, and says that young people are less likely to have serious consequences from the disease. To him, taking away a student’s passion would be a greater harm.

He says if he can’t play football, he’ll double-down on club lacrosse to get his emotional release.

“But some kids won’t just be able to go to an AAU outlet. Kids that only play football are going to be left out,” McDuffie said. “Then, the depression and things like that are going to be much higher. It just scares me, especially when I really believe from the numbers, that everything with the risk from COVID is so negligible, that your choice to eliminate sports is going to make it worse for kids my age.”

Beckwith, the Maranacook soccer coach, said he worries that too many people have forgotten that the intended mission of interscholastic sports is to be an extension of the school day, where important life lessons are taught or enhanced.

“I think sports help you with coping skills, organization skills, so many things that might help you with other parts of life that you might not get, and it’s gone,” Beckwith said. “I don’t think they think that this classroom is as important as it really is.”

Lydia Stein, a senior at Portland High, would agree. She’s a two-year captain on a girls’ soccer team that went 11-3-1 last season. But for Stein, sports are not about the quest for trophies. They’re about having a much needed sense of togetherness. And at Portland High, where sophomores, juniors and seniors will start the year in full-remote learning, that connection could be needed even more.

“Sports offers so much more than just playing a sport,” Stein said. “We’re like a family, and our mental health, we need sports. It’s just mostly being together, and not being able to be together, that’s what we’re going to miss the most. It’s not the winning and losing, it’s just the being together.”

If you or someone who you is struggling with a mental health crisis, you can call the Maine Crisis Line 24 hours a day at 1-888-568-1112. For more information about mental health services in Maine, visit the website for the state’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.