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Athlete Substance Abuse is More Common Than You Think

When perfect eating habits, high performance, and demanding fitness regimens are expected, not all athletes are able to keep up.


Terrence Engles was chosen in the MLB draft by the Montreal Expos in 2003, right out of high school. He was a kid who had experimented with drugs during his time as an adolescent, but was never a heavy user. While Engles played in the minor leagues he spent months at a time on the road, traveling from city to city. He met new players often and spent less and less time with his family. Eventually, Engles injured his back and needed to visit the hospital for an MRI.

The MRI revealed significant damage to his back, and his physician filled a prescription for pain-killing medication, which would help Engles’ recovery.

The drugs that Engles’ doctor hoped would help him recover, instead sent him down a dark path. Engles soon became addicted to the painkillers, taking them every day at increasingly higher doses. He reached a point where he could not go a day without taking the pills, if not he suffered from severe withdrawal symptoms. Eventually, the pills took over Engles’ life, and he had to stop playing baseball and enter rehab.

Engles’ story is not a pretty one, and while on the more severe end of substance abuse tales, Engles is not the only athlete that has gone through similar troubles. Amongst professional football players, 52% self-reported the use of opiates at some point in their career, while 72% stated that they misused opiates at some point in their career. In the same survey, only 5% of respondents stated that they only used their opiates under the guidelines of their prescription and physician.

The substance abuse woes of athletes not only include opiates, but others such as marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. Just recently the world was shocked by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to ban Sha’Carri Richardson from competitive play for one month after she tested positive for marijuana. Richardson then came out publicly to apologize and stated she used marijuana as a way to cope with the recent death of her mother. Both Richardson and Engles had been dealing with trauma and used drugs and the induced high they provide to help themselves feel better.

It is not only Engles and Richardson, but hundreds of different athletes across numerous sports. While these athletes may have little in common on the surface, the common thread between them is the lack of mental health care provided to them throughout their lives. Too often are young athletes told to just push through their pain, or toughen up. With increased focus on maintaining the mental health of athletes, we can help them discover better coping methods than drug use. Additionally, as mental healthcare becomes more accessible to young athletes, we can increase the likelihood of better outcomes for those so often overlooked in their battles with substance abuse.


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