Can Depression Be A Mental Health Risk After A Concussion?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons defines a concussion as a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that "results in temporary loss of normal brain function." Individuals who experience concussions generally do so after a direct blow to their head. The physical impacts of a concussion are generally given more attention than the mental health risks. However, the brain plays a role in controlling virtually every other part of the body, and one’s physical and mental health can be strongly interconnected. Therefore, even a temporary loss of regular functions within the brain can cause mental health challenges. 

If you or someone you love has experienced a concussion, it may be help to be aware of the potential mental health challenges, including depression, that may result from such an injury.

Are you noticing the mental side effects of a concussion?

A brief overview of concussions

Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by an impact to one’s head. While one concussion may not cause long-lasting physical damage, if someone has more concussions, they may experience a greater likelihood of permanent harm. Physical fights and intense sports are linked to the development of concussions. However, this does not mean that everyone who plays sports or gets into a fight will experience a concussion.

Symptoms of a concussion

Not all medical exams are able to determine when someone has experienced a concussion. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people who have a concussion don’t lose consciousness, but there are some other symptoms that are often associated with concussions. Individuals who have experienced a concussion may have difficulty with a series of physical motions and have trouble retaining coherent thoughts. Sometimes, an individual or the people around them may have trouble determining whether a concussion is present. When in doubt, it may help to see a care provider.

Additional symptoms of a concussion may include loss of memory, vomiting, ringing in the ears, loss of senses, and a lack of balance. People who have recently experienced a concussion may also experience headaches and problems with their vision.

Concussions of any nature can be serious, and anything that causes the loss of brain functions may require medical attention, even if this loss is temporary.

Reviewing mental health risks after a concussion

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 20% of people who experience a concussion subsequently develop mental health symptoms. Depending on the cause and specific nature of the concussion, these individuals may develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There may be many factors that determine which mental health problems a person experiences following a concussion. However, a history of mental health disorders may increase an individual's susceptibility in the wake of a concussion.

Risk factors

Why are approximately 20% of people who experience concussions more likely to develop mental health conditions than the remaining 80%? Research suggests that risk factors may play a role in the statistical discrepancies. The state of an individual's lifestyle, their overall mental health, and the way they handle themselves after a concussion may affect whether additional mental health problems follow after the initial incident.

As mentioned above, one of the leading risk factors may include the presence of pre-existing mental health conditions. This may be applicable to individuals who already have a history of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. 

Lifestyle factors may also be a contributing risk factor. Human interaction can make a significant difference, especially when someone is working to recover from a concussion. In many cases, it can be tempting for people to close themselves off from others or isolate themselves, but this may affect their recovery. Being around people who care and engage in safe, low-risk activities may be healthy and help prevent the development of depression, loneliness, and other mental health challenges.

Depression

Taking steps to avoid the aforementioned risk factors may help with recovery. However, precautions do not always lead to prevention. Individuals who experience a concussion may still develop mental health challenges, such as depression. Depending on the extent of the brain injury, the depression may be mild or temporary, but in other cases, someone may experience depression for considerable periods of time.

If an individual experiences depression following a concussion, seeking help from a doctor and/or mental health professional may be helpful. There are various therapy options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), that can help people overcome depression. Another treatment option for depression after a concussion may also be medication. A licensed healthcare provider may prescribe medication, and it’s recommended that you always speak with a doctor before starting or stopping a new medication.

Challenges with thought processing

Due to the way that a concussion can interfere with brain functions, individuals who experience this trauma may be at risk of challenges with processing thoughts. People who have experienced a traumatic brain injury often struggle to retain and recall information. The combination of thought-processing problems and depression may worsen both symptoms. As with depression, a person who experiences cognitive challenges can seek support from a doctor or a mental health professional. There are several evidence-based treatments for depression, including online therapy, which allows individuals to receive mental health care from home during their recovery from a concussion.

Fatigue

Fatigue may be common in individuals who have experienced a concussion. While most people recover from a concussion, healing from the trauma inflicted upon the brain may involve fatigue. In many cases, fatigue may be the body's way of healing. According to the Cleveland Clinic, rest is important for recovery from a concussion. While many people believe that a person shouldn’t sleep after a concussion, there is currently no evidence base for this claim.  

Taking steps to avoid concussions

There are many preventive measures to avoid concussions. Taking the right precautions may save people from experiencing physical problems, mental health challenges, and disruptions to daily life.

Avoiding concussions may require implementing certain safety measures. These may include wearing seatbelts while driving or riding in a vehicle, putting on headgear during sports or other activities with heavy physical contact, and placing grab bars in areas where people can fall. Also, recovery from a concussion may require temporarily abstaining from certain activities.

Are you noticing the mental side effects of a concussion?

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Whether you’ve recently experienced a concussion or you know someone who has, it can be important to pay attention to the potential mental health symptoms that can follow a concussion. If you’re having new or worsening symptoms that you feel unable to solve on your own, know that you’re not alone. 

There are licensed mental health counselors who can help during this time. If concussion symptoms make it difficult to leave home, you might consider online therapy, which research has shown to be effective for a variety of mental health concerns. Several studies have demonstrated online therapy to be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy.

With online counseling, you can receive mental health care from the comfort of your home and connect with a therapist in a way that feels right for you following a concussion. You can communicate with a licensed therapist via live chat, phone, or videoconferencing—or a combination of these modalities. Also, with BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist at any time day or night through in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can. This may be useful if you experience concussion symptoms in between sessions.

Takeaway

Concussions and other types of brain injuries can pose serious risks to your mental health. If you notice that you’re acting differently after a traumatic brain injury or experiencing unusual changes in your cognitive abilities, it may help to reach out to your primary care provider. 

You may also find it useful to speak with a mental health professional. With online therapy, you can speak with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home, which may be helpful following a concussion. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience treating people following concussions or brain injuries. Take the first step toward mental and emotional healing from a concussion and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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