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Statistics, Baseball and Mental Health in Utah

Statistics, Baseball and Mental Health in Utah

On a visceral level, baseball and mental health go together like Christmas and childhood memories. There’s the crack of the ball hitting the bat, the pop of the ball in the catcher’s mitt, and catching a foul ball in the stands or a home run on the lawn of Smith’s Ballpark. There’s bonding with family at a young age or making new friends at any age. You can enjoy the in-game entertainment, or there’s plenty of opportunity to catch your breath and reflect a moment between innings—followed by moments of fleeting, yet structured, drama on the field. There is a set of rules and an ultimate objective, but there is also a sense of endless, undirected fun. And there’s a collective sense of belonging that comes with rooting for the home team.

 

Mental Health Statistics and the Role of Luck

What many people don’t know is that the study of baseball also contributes to the study of mental health. Whether you’re trying to determine which treatments are most likely to improve mental health or which skills and players are most likely to contribute to a winning team, careful observation, recordkeeping, and statistical analysis is required.

And the truth is that human perception isn’t naturally predisposed to reading and interpreting quantitative data. What looks like random outcomes in an everyday context can add up quickly over time. A 5 percent improvement to a player’s batting average—one extra hit per week—is the difference between an average ballplayer and a Hall-of-Famer. An antidepressant that’s 5 percent more effective than what’s available today can be hard to detect in clinical studies, but it could also mean a more stable mood and higher resilience for tens of thousands of Utah residents.

The same science and math skills are used to answer questions across many different types of human activity, baseball and mental included:

  • Does a player’s horrible batting performance in May indicate a lack of focus, a string of bad luck, or an inability to adapt to new defensive strategies?

 

  • Does an antidepressant drug that makes 65 percent of patients feel better owe its success to a better chemical formula and molecular structure, selection bias in finding patients for the study, or heightened placebo effects that come from oral medications and doctors in lab coats?

 

  • And sometimes the link between baseball and mental health is a direct one: Is a pitcher who was struck in the head by a line drive 3 months struggling to throw strikes because there are lingering effects of a brain injury, a newly formed fear of getting hit in the head, or simply because it’s taking a little longer than expected to regain his previous form?

 

Emerging Realities and Incomplete Data

In baseball as well as mental health, early detection and intervention are crucial. Recognizing before any other team that a young second baseman with stellar defensive skills is also going to fill out and develop into a power hitter in a few years is the kind of thing that sets the most successful teams apart. Likewise, getting an accurate diagnosis for autism, bipolar, or schizophrenia twelve or even six months earlier can have a substantial impact for treatment and long-term mental health outcomes.

Years of recruitment and development—not to mention diligent practice routines—go into assembling the baseball team that we as Salt Lake Bees fans go to see. Likewise, there is a complex tapestry of environmental and genetic causes that go into the presentation of most mental disorders. And yet, from one day to another, dumb luck creates unpredictable outcomes for what happens on the baseball diamond and what happens to an individual’s development and mental health.

 

Development of Skills across Industries

You might be thinking that this is a neat idea, but does baseball really contribute to mental health in any material way? We think it does. In fact, people often underestimate the ways in which professional skills that are developed by one organization or industry tend to bleed into other applications. FiveThirtyEight—a scholarly data-driven news site that covers topics including public and personal health—has much of its genesis in sports statistics and data analysis.

But baseball and statistics are far from the crossover. Take the VA system, for example. Due to an inability to process veterans’ claims, track and report patient wait times, and generally provide a reasonable access to health services, there have been calls to privatize the VA system. (Other policymakers are instead pushing to revamp and better fund the VA system.) But smart, experienced people who have looked at the issue point out that one of the things that make privatization impractical is the VA’s role in training mental health professionals.

Many of the doctors and psychologists who treat head injuries in Utah due to car collisions, organized sports, occupational hazards, and canyoneering—many of these professionals received their education and early career training in the VA system. And while the private health care system could possibly accommodate more patients in the short-term—for a price—it doesn’t have the infrastructure or track record when it comes to replacing these professional training programs.

 

The Statistics We’re Trying to Change

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 44 percent of adults know little to nothing about  mental illness and 31 percent of adults say a fear of being judged by others would stop them from seeking mental health treatment. Try as we might, the goal of a completely informed and destigmatized society is not realistic. But even making a small difference—one more person, one more mental health insight, one more therapy session per week—will eventually lead to a large, positive impact.

 

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