The impact of concussions: Blows to the head can have serious effects on an athletes’ mental health
Concussions altered the trajectory of Bennett Gamber’s life.
He was on track to potentially become another Olympian out of Steamboat Springs, but two consecutive concussions ended those dreams. Two years after his most recent concussion, Gamber still suffers from daily headaches and other behavioral health symptoms, something he didn’t anticipate.
“I feel like not very many people have been in the situation of dealing with a concussion for such a long time. Not a lot of people understand what I’m going through and what I have to deal with, because it’s been such a long, tedious, recovery,” Gamber said. “I still get headaches everyday. I still have other symptoms, and they really are difficult to deal with, but you get used to it, which isn’t great, but it becomes part of your daily life.”
In January 2019, he was 17 and feeling stronger than ever. He had just graduated high school, was competing in Nordic combined on the Continental Cup circuit and qualified for the Junior World Championships, which would take place in late January in Finland.
That January, he suffered a concussion. Three days into what was expected to be a two-month stint in Europe, Gamber landed poorly on a jump. He seemed to be OK, except for hitting his head — hard.
The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club has gotten more and more cautious about potential concussions over the past decade. Coaches are required to complete concussion training every year, and the club often brings in guest speakers and hosts clinics on head injuries. When Gamber fell, Nordic combined head coach Karl Denney didn’t hesitate to pull the young athlete from the competition and have him checked out by a doctor.
“That second time, he was just getting back,” Denney said. “That repeated concussion is nothing to mess with. That was difficult.”
Under concussion protocols, Gamber couldn’t compete. He had to do as little as possible and recover, so he went home. In late May, he started jumping again. At a training camp in Park City in July, Gamber fell again. In an eerily similar crash to his first a few months prior, Gamber hit his head and suffered another concussion.
“An ACL tear, you can get a timeline on your recovery. You can see a scar, a cut, an X-ray, but a concussion, you can’t see what the injury is,” Gamber said. “You can’t predict what the injury is. You can’t predict a timeline. It’s hard to know what is going to happen. I think a lot of people don’t really recognize that concussions can be such a long tedious recovery and be so difficult to deal with, because they’re not a physical injury that you can visually see. The brain is way different than any other muscle or organ.”
Since his first was pretty quick, Gamber was optimistic for his second recovery. Plus, he had an entire off-season in front of him. He had tons of time to focus on getting back in shape in the fall, since he planned on taking a gap year before going to college.
But, Gamber didn’t get better. Months later, he still had persisting, nagging symptoms that were making life a lot harder to live.
“I was super anxious, starting to get depressed and really frustrated,” Gamber said. “With that heightened anxiety and irritability, everything was bothering me, and it was probably bad to be around me.”
Those feelings were paired with the fact he was sitting around, unable to compete in or practice the sport he loved. His friends were all continuing their sports or activities and getting ready to go to college. Meanwhile, Gamber was stagnant, sitting in his own unhappiness with little ability to stay physically active.
“I’ve always been a fairly anxious person, and anxiety and depression are symptoms of concussions,” Gamber said. “My symptoms were exacerbated. They were definitely heightened. That was really difficult. That came from having a brain injury and the situation I was in. I didn’t have much going on and was trying to heal. I just wasn’t doing anything.”
Tracy Vargas, a neurologist with UCHealth Neurology Clinic said Gamber’s experience is not unique. Many athletes suffer from depression from the concussion itself, but those feelings are worsened by their inability to participate in the sport they love. Physical health is mental health, and a lack of physical activity, especially when that’s a frequent outlet for someone, leads to a deterioration of mental health.
About one-third of youth experience behavioral health symptoms in the months following a concussion, according to a 2020 analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Gamber said he was always a little anxious, but most people would be while balancing high level athletics and high school. He was able to manage it and rarely had trouble keeping up with school despite his travel-heavy schedule. After the concussion, he could barely handle small things.
“Minor tasks and little chores, and little tedious things would eat away at me and make me really irritable,” Gamber said. “I just wouldn’t handle them and the stress, as well, because I felt like everything or every little thing would bother me, and they’d build up on each other. I didn’t have as much on my schedule and wasn’t doing as much. It was almost like I was finding things to get upset about.”
Gamber started seeing a concussion specialist, who identified his symptoms. Shortly after, he started on antidepressants.
His depression exhibiting as irritability is common with young men. Vargas said young females are more apt to experience depression following a concussion, while young men show irritability more often.
“I think it’s complicated. I think they are depressed, too,” Vargas said. “I think we see it (in that trend) because women are more willing to acknowledge depression. With men, you have to ask questions like, ”Are you irritable, are you short tempered?“ That’s indicative of depression. You’d treat it basically the same. … Men manifest it as well; it just comes out differently.”
In December 2019, as a second antidepressant option proved more effective, Gamber realized he wouldn’t compete that winter, so he decided to go to school. He called up the University of Vermont where he deferred his enrollment, and they said he could start attending with the spring semester, which was only a few weeks away from starting.
Gamber was suddenly overwhelmed by all he had to do. He enrolled in a part-time course load as he couldn’t balance a full-time schedule right away. He was also intimidated by starting school in the spring, after his freshmen classmates already had a period of time to make friends and find their niche.
On the other hand, being in school provided structure and something to do. Gamber started finding his stride again. He got off antidepressants, which never fully suited him, and he started seeing a neurologist to monitor and work with him on some of his symptoms.
This past semester was Gamber’s most successful. He took the most credits since starting school in January 2020 en route to a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. He’s even skiing again. While he’s not jumping anymore, he joined the club Nordic team at UVM.
“Having that different environment has been really fun, because I’m skiing with people I never thought I’d ski with,” Gamber said. “Some people are doing intervals; there are other people who are there to have fun and go ski. … I’m enjoying skiing for what it is.”
Awareness, diagnoses increase
The number of reported concussions have gone up locally and nationally in many sports. Many believe this doesn’t mean concussions are happening more often, but they are being caught more often due to increased awareness.
In the past 10 years, research about concussions and their prolonged symptoms and effects has grown astronomically, making the dangers of concussions common knowledge. What has followed are stricter protocols regarding hits to the head at every level of athletics.
“I have seen the numbers of concussions rise. I would say, in the last seven years, they’ve almost doubled based on our tracking,” said Stephanie Steffanelli, certified athletic trainer with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “That’s increased diagnosis. I think that’s probably why the numbers have gone up so much, not necessarily that they’re occurring more often.”
In March 2011, former Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper signed into law the Jake Snakenberg Youth Sports Concussion Act, which required coaches to receive concussion education. The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, also ensured a student athlete is removed from play if there is suspicion of a concussion, and they cannot return until being cleared by a health care professional.
Ever since, concussion numbers have increased. A study from University of California San Francisco revealed a major increase in concussions, presumably because of a rise in awareness and participation.
“A 60% increase in concussions occurred from 2007 to 2014 (3,529 to 8,217),” the study said, “with the largest growth in ages 10-14 at 143% and 15-19 at 87%.”
With Colorado’s new law, it takes one small indicator for an athlete to be taken out of a game due to a concussion.
“If they have any signs or symptoms, if they’re acting weird even though they’re not saying they feel weird, anything subjective or objective, it just takes one thing,” Steffanelli said. “If I overheard a kid saying, ‘Oh, I think I just got a concussion,’ that’s enough. It’s what they say and what they do. It only takes one. Sometimes, it isn’t a concussion, and they come off and say, ‘Oh, my head hurts’ or ‘I just got my bell rung.’ Let me evaluate you before you say something you can’t take back.”
Concussion awareness reached a new level back in 2005 when Dr. Bennet Omalu published a study called ‘Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a National Football League player’ after examining the brain of professional football player Mike Webster. He wrote about the existence of tau proteins. Tau took over regions of the brain responsible for mood and emotions.
Despite his findings, the league was in denial for years to come. In 2012, the existence of CTE and the dangers of concussions became nearly impossible to deny. Thirty-five brains of former NFL players were donated to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; 34 had CTE.
That was right around the same time states were signing laws to protect young athletes from concussions.
Mary Beth Strotbeck, manager of UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs, has seen the Yampa Valley completely buy into concussion protocols across the board: skiing, snowboarding, hockey, football, soccer and more. The extreme athleticism here hasn’t made the area a hot spot for concussions but rather added to the determination to prevent them.
“In general, in the last 10 to 11 years, our community has become much more well educated and well versed in understanding concussions and concussion management,” Strotbeck said.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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Emma Harmon, of Durango, is pictured with journals she has kept about her mental health challenges. She said Axis Health System would not help her when in crisis. “The way things seem to work there, you’d actually have to have killed yourself before they’d meet with you.” | Jerry McBride/Durango Herald