Study links concussions to mental health issues in kids

BOSTON — For Kylie Lowell, sports meant everything.

“It was my outlet and I spent every day after school doing sports,” Kylie said.

But it was sports that became her undoing — thanks to a hard hit in 8th Grade basketball.

“In one of my games I just went for the ball and this girl took an elbow to my head,” Kylie remembered. “Blacked out for a few minutes and that’s the concussion that really started it all for me.”

What that concussion started still hasn’t concluded. Kylie said she still suffers from fatigue and headaches — but that’s a vast improvement for the 12th Grader — who spent much of high school out of the classroom.

“Going to school became impossible for me,” she said. “The light. The noise. Just... I couldn’t do it. It was an overstimulation.”

Kylie was suffering from post-concussion syndrome — and, as a result, she developed anxiety and depression.

“I was a totally social girl,” she said. “I played three sports. I was in school every day. I loved being with my friends. I was just losing everything that I had in my life. And that was gone after just one hit to the head.”

Hits to the head that result in concussions significantly predispose children to mental health problems. That’s the conclusion of a new study from Canadian researchers, published in this week’s JAMA Network Open.

The study looked back at ten years of data from 2010 - 2020, with researchers honing in on children, ages 5-18, who sought medical care during that period for concussions or orthopedic injuries — the latter group included for comparison purposes.

The researchers found concussions correlated more strongly to mental health issues than did orthopedic injuries — by a ratio of 11:8.

Robert Cantu, MD, Medical Director of the Concussion Center at Emerson Hospital and co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University called the study somewhat alarmist — because the number of those developing mental health problems post-concussion seemed high.

“The point of this study that I think is very important — it points out that one of the cluster of symptoms that happen with concussion are emotional symptoms,” Cantu said. “And when they happen they should be looked for number one, recognized — and they should be treated, number two.”

Cantu said emotional symptoms can arise as a direct result of brain injury — but that there are likely other mechanisms playing a role.

“If you have an underlying predisposition for anxiety or depression, almost always when you have a concussion it will be aggravated.” Cantu said.

And then there’s the reactive depression some kids experience as a result, Cantu said, of their lives being turned upside down.

“They’re not in class the way they’d like to be, they’re not performing the way they’d like to be. and they’re not back to sports if they were an athlete,” he said.

Kylie Lowell attempted a comeback to sports her Freshman year in high school, but suffered another concussion — her third overall (the first she got in elementary school.)

“I’m out of contact sports — probably for awhile,” she said.

What she’s no longer out of — is life. While Kylie still experiences symptoms from that 8th Grade concussion, she says she’s learned to manage them.

“I dealt with depression and anxiety after losing important aspects of my life,” she said. “But I’m finally able to be back in school and keeping up with my work. And going to college next year. It’s been a huge lift to my spirits.”

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