Basketball as Antidepressant

For various reasons, a lot of NBA people have been thinking about clinical depression lately, and it seemed appropriate to check in with Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D. who surely has to be the most qualified person anywhere to address the issue.

He's a true basketball stat geek who has written hoops analysis articles, performed analysis for Roy Williams' coaching staff and held his own in the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown.

But that's not his day job. He's really a depression researcher and author of a respected book on curing depression.

And when I asked him about depression and basketball, he had an interesting response. In essence: Play it! He writes:

First, a little background: There's an epidemic of depressive illness that's sweeping the urbanized, industrialized world. In the U.S., the lifetime rate of clinical depression now stands at 23%, and it has doubled in the past decade. (Clarification: many people think clinical depression is just a mild case of the "blahs," which everyone gets from time to time; instead, the disorder is a debilitating illness that ravages the brain and robs people of their energy, their memory, their concentration, their ability to love and work and play -- and, in many cases, even their will to live.)

NBA players are not completely immune from the modern depression epidemic. We saw thisin the case of Delonte West, and have witnessed it in the past with players like Vin Baker, Kendall Gill, Brian Williams and Jason Caffey. Although there are doubtless other cases of depression in the NBA that go unreported, it's clear that the risk among NBA players is considerably lower than that of the population at large.

Remarkably, we can identify several antidepressant elements associated with playing basketball -- and that even includes the pickup games many TrueHoop readers enjoy:

  • Aerobic exerise is antidepressant; researchers have found it to be at least as effective as depression medications, and it improves the function of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.

  • Social connections help protect against depression, and many of us forge powerful bonds of friendship with our fellow hoopophiles on and off the court.

  • Engaging activity counteracts the toxic mental process of rumination -- dwelling repeatedly on negative thoughts -- a process that contributes to the onset and maintenance of depression.

  • Outdoor pickup games provide exposure to sunlight, which helps reset the body clock (thereby protecting against depression by enhancing energy and hormone regulation) and also stimulates vitamin D synthesis in the skin (this vitamin in turn activates important genes in the brain that regulate mood).

  • Exercise and sunlight exposure help enhance sleep quality, shifting the brain into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep that tend to disappear during an episode of depression.

In a nutshell: basketball can be powerfully antidepressant.

It can, in principle, help provide at least five of the six key lifestyle changes I recommend in my book. (And the other key step -- omega-3 supplementation -- could conceivably take place on the sidelines.)