Orygen co-develops International Olympic Committee tool for identifying elite athletes at risk of me

Orygen co-develops International Olympic Committee tool for identifying elite athletes at risk of mental ill-health

24 September 2020

A new tool to identify elite athletes’ risk of mental ill-health has been developed by a group of international experts, including researchers from Orygen.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Sport Mental Health Assessment Tool 1 (SMHAT-1) allows sports medicine physicians and other health professionals to assess elite athletes at risk of, or presenting with, symptoms of mental ill-health.

The tool was published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Orygen’s director of research and translation and member of the IOC’s working group, Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell, said the tool brought together the best available screening measures to identify elite athletes at risk of developing mental ill-health.

“The tool itself has multiple phases; if athletes receive a high score on the first phase, they’ll move on to complete the next phase,” Associate Professor Purcell said.

“If an athlete is identified as being at risk of developing mental ill-health, then the tool helps sports medicine staff to investigate exactly what the athlete is experiencing and how severe it may be.

“It’s not about diagnosing athletes with mental ill-heath, it’s about identifying those athletes at risk of mental ill-health so that they are able to get help as early as possible.”

The first phase of the tool requires athletes to complete the Athlete Psychological Strain Questionnaire (APSQ).

Developed by Orygen researchers, including Associate Professor Purcell and Orygen principal research fellow, Associate Professor Simon Rice, the APSQ uses targeted questions to determine athletes’ psychological distress.

“The APSQ is a screening tool that’s sensitive to elite athletes’ context and environment,” Associate Professor Rice said. “Rather than asking questions such as ‘are you feeling depressed’ or ‘is your mood lower than usual’, the questionnaire asks targeted questions on topics such as coping with selection pressures or worrying about life after sport.”

The SMHAT-1 was developed in response to the International Olympic Committee consensus statement on mental health in elite athletes, which found a significant prevalence of mental ill-health among active and former elite athletes and recommended screening elites athletes for symptoms of mental ill-health throughout their career.

“Elite athletes work in high-performance environments; receiving high levels of scrutiny and judgement are part of their occupation,” Associate Professor Purcell said. “Our research has shown that elite athletes’ risk of experiencing mental ill-health is much higher than the general population.

“We need to be looking for signs of mental ill-health in athletes as early as possible so that they receive the support they need and are able to achieve sporting success.”