Under the spotlight: The mental health of elite athletes

Under the spotlight: The mental health of elite athletes

17 August 2016

Under the spotlight: The mental health of elite athletes

Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, has released the world’s first comprehensive review of the current evidence compiled on the mental health and wellbeing of elite-level athletes.

As the world focusses on the 31st Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, the published review shows that while high-quality research exists on the nature and impacts of physical injuries on elite athletes, including head injuries/concussion and limb injuries, there is comparatively little high-quality research available on the mental health and psychological wellbeing of elite-level athletes.

On the basis of current evidence, the report published in one of the world’s leading sports medicine journals, states that the majority of young elite athletes appear to experience the same risk of high-prevalence mental health disorders as young people in the general population. This group are also vulnerable to a number of extraordinary issues and stressors that may increase their risk, such as pressure to perform and public scrutiny. In particular, an athlete who is injured, commencing a transition to retirement or who is experiencing performance difficulty may be at a greater risk of developing mental health issues and require specific support.

Lead author of the review, Senior Research Fellow at Orygen, Dr Simon Rice says, “We often view elite athletes and Olympians as super-human and invulnerable. However the data shows that sport at the elite level doesn’t necessarily inoculate athletes against risk of mental ill-health.”

Simon Hogan, an ex-AFL player who played professional football for Geelong between 2007 -2012, has spoken publically about his experiences of living with depression and knows first-hand that being an elite AFL footballer with support structures in place, offers no protection from experiencing mental ill-health.

“As a high achieving elite athlete, I was extremely na├»ve in my understanding of mental ill-health. I felt pressure to reach public and personal expectations and felt vulnerable when underperforming. The challenge of reaching out for help was only heightened by the public perception of elite athletes, causing me to delay the necessary actions to improve my mental health.” he says.

Having left the game, Simon remains actively involved in promoting mental health awareness, and has worked with a number of sporting and non-sporting organisations to assist them in building support structures to effectively manage mental ill-health.

While the importance of athlete mental health is gaining increasing attention, the unique range of stressors that elite athletes experience may increase their vulnerability to mental ill-health. The review concludes that if the assessment and management of the mental health needs of elite athletes is to be on par with their physical needs, further high-quality research and intervention studies are needed. With better evidence there is an opportunity to develop specific support programs that can assist in improving the mental health of athletes throughout their careers.