Helping Athletes Stay in Shape, Both Body and Mind

Stars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have ignited the mental-health conversation, but just how prevalent is mental illness among top athletes?


Over the past few months, high-profile athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles made headlines for stepping down from major athletic tournaments to focus on their mental health. While these decisions may have caught some sports fans by surprise, a new study from the University of Toronto has found that elite athletes face mental health challenges much more frequently than the general population, indicating that mental health needs to be a major focus of sporting events going forward.

The study was led by Zoe Poucher, a graduate student in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at U of T, and published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

It’s not surprising that prominent events like the Olympics come with a great deal of stress, but Poucher and her colleagues were interested in learning how these challenges affected athletes’ mental health.

To do this, she surveyed more than 100 Canadian national team athletes who were training for the 2020 Summer Olympics (but had not necessarily been selected yet) on symptoms relating to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The surveys were carried out in December 2019 — prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — meaning that the added stress of the pandemic wasn’t a factor in her results.

After gathering self-reported responses from the study participants, Poucher and her colleagues found that 41.4% of athletes surveyed met the diagnostic cut-off criteria for at least one mental disorder. This is vastly higher than the 10% of Canadians who reported symptoms of a mental disorder in 2019, and highlights the unique challenges faced by professional athletes.

Depression was the most common among athletes surveyed, with 31.7% reporting symptoms that met diagnostic criteria, while 18.8% reported symptoms of anxiety and 8.6% reported symptoms of eating disorders.

Interestingly, Poucher’s study also revealed that athletes who had already been selected for the Olympics experienced higher rates of depression. This may seem surprising, since competing in the Olympics is often a major goal for professional athletes, but survey results suggest that the pressure of training can exacerbate mental health issues.

“We hear a lot about post-Olympic depression, but I have not seen any research on mental health prior to the Olympics,” Poucher said in a news release.

“I think the assumption is that people are happy they made the team.”

While Poucher’s findings may seem grim, she believes that fostering conversations on mental health can help.

Osaka and Biles’s decision to focus on their mental health, and speak openly about the challenges they’re facing, opens the doors for more athletes to speak up and deal with these challenges going forward. Along with increased efforts to prioritize athletes’ physical safety at high-profile sporting events, this will help elite athletes stay at the top of their game and prevent career-ending injuries or illnesses — both mental and physical — before they occur.

“Mental health is obviously impacting a large portion of elite athletes, but it is still not getting the attention it deserves and athletes are made to feel bad about it,” Poucher said.

“If we can demonstrate that this is a large problem, I am hopeful that it will help to shift the conversation around mental health, increase awareness of the issue, and help inform policy-level change.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.