Canada’s elite athletes at greater risk for mental disorders, study finds

Click to play video: 'New study finds elite athletes face greater mental health risks'
New study finds elite athletes face greater mental health risks
WATCH: Canada's top athletes are more likely to develop mental disorders than the general public, according to a new study by the University of Toronto. Jamie Mauracher explains why, and how the findings compare to research in other countries. – Jul 30, 2021

As the importance of mental health continues to make headlines at the Tokyo Olympics, a new study, one of the first of its kind in Canada, has revealed 41 per cent of elite Canadian athletes meet the criteria for one or more mental disorders.

Zoe Poucher, a sports psychology PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, told Global News the data shocked her.

“That number is quite high,” said Poucher.

Alongside a team of researchers, Poucher surveyed 186 Canadian athletes who were training for the 2020 Summer Olympic/Paralympic Games and found they are more at risk for mental disorders compared to the general population.

Nearly 32 per cent reported symptoms of depression, 18.8 per cent reported symptoms of  anxiety, while 8.6 were high risk of an eating disorder.

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Stress and training load were the main factors.

“We found a correlation between having been selected for the Tokyo Games and symptoms of depression,” Poucher explained.

“I think probably a lot of people think, like, ‘They made the team, they must be really happy’,” but Poucher said the findings didn’t support that.

“I’m inclined to think that it maybe has something to do with pressure and expectation. Now you have to compete at the games and it’s this even more stress and more pressure than before,” she said.

Mental health top of mind in Tokyo

Canadian gymnast Ellie Black commented Wednesday on the pressures she and others face on the Olympic stage.

“We are all just human. We are just regular people. We train at the highest level; we compete at the highest level,” Black said

“Sometimes you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. There is a lot of expectation and pressure.”

Her comments were in response to the news that Simone Biles withdrew from Thursday’s all-around athletic gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics, after stepping back from competition on Tuesday.

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USA Gymnastics released a statement saying Biles’ withdrawal was made, “after further medical evaluation” for the 24-year-old superstar gymnast to “focus on her mental health.”

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Canadian rower Dr. Jane Thornton, who competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, said the pressure that comes with being on a world stage is immense.

“You train for years and years … but nothing that prepares you for the intensity of an Olympic games,” she said. “As an ambassador of your country … it can sometimes feel like the weight of world is on your shoulders.”

Katherine Tamminen, a sports psychologist who is also involved in the study, said not wanting to let anyone down is one of the most common stressors.

“Athletes might also feel a sense of obligation or pressure to perform well because of all of the sacrifices that they’ve made. They want all of that effort that’s been invested to be worth it to pay off,” she explained.

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Click to play video: '‘We are just human’: Ellie Black comments on Simone Biles’ withdrawal for mental health'
‘We are just human’: Ellie Black comments on Simone Biles’ withdrawal for mental health

Tamminen said athletes also face burnout as well as organizational stressors and pressure from the public, especially around competition time.

“It’s really intensified around the Olympics,” she noted.

And the pandemic has made it worse, said Thornton, who is now a sports medicine physician.

“I have seen an uptick in patients with anxiety when that wasn’t an issue for them before. The is uncertainty getting to them.”

Canadian findings not unique 

While Poucher said she was originally shocked by the number of athletes who are facing mental disorders, she said given the other findings worldwide, she shouldn’t be.

In a study out of Australia, 50 per cent of 224 elite athletes they spoke to experienced symptoms of at least one mental disorder.

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Out of  143 athletes surveyed from the United Kingdom, 48 per cent reported symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Prioritizing and destigmatizing mental health in sports 

Both Poucher and Tamminen acknowledge there are better supports these days but getting athletes to use them is a whole other ballgame.

“I think in some cases it’s a matter of maybe encouraging access because some of the stigma still exists,” Poucher said.

She also explained why an athlete may be hesitant to seek help. “Maybe I talk to a sports (psychologist) and they talk to my coach and they think I’m not mentally ready to compete,” she said.

Thornton agreed.

“We train so hard … we appear to have it together,” she said, “but I think what happens is the culture of sport makes it hard to voice your symptoms and admit weakness.”

Poucher said coaches should instead welcome the honesty.

It’s a proactive approach, Poucher said, that may have helped in the case of Simon Biles.

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“Maybe if she had been able to work through some of this beforehand and been in a place where there was someone to help, maybe then it wouldn’t have built up into this big thing at the Olympics,” she said.

Poucher also explained a better flow of information and communication between family, coaching staff and athletes could help reduce stress as well.

Success with support 

In 2018, Canadian swimming star, Penny Oleksiak, took a step back from her sport after her family said she was becoming burnt out after a non-stop competition circuit.

“We were concerned she was getting overwhelmed,” her mother, Alison Oleksiak, told Global News. “It was a 30-month period with no breaks. No one can keep doing that.”

The break, her sister said, paid off.

“The mental growth she has developed … she has a revived passion for the sport again,” said Hayley Oleksiak, “We talk to her day to day … when she is racing … she is so happy and confident.”

In Tokyo, Wednesday’s bronze medal win made Oleksiak the most decorated Canadian summer Olympic athlete.

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For Thornton, the importance of support cannot be overstated.

“We need to really build a support network (of) family and friends,” she said. “We need to support (athletes) throughout their journey, no matter how they perform.”

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