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Sport has long been known to promote a sense of wellbeing, but at an elite level, athletes are just as likely to suffer from depression as people who don’t do any sport, a new study at the University of Portsmouth has found.

The research from the University of Portsmouth is the first of its kind to compare symptoms of depression in elite and non-athletes. It found that elite athletes are no more likely than people who don’t do sport to report mild or more severe depressive symptoms.

Portsmouth study finds elite athletes just as likely to suffer depression

Led by Dr. Paul Gorczynski (pictured left) from the University’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science, the study examined data from 1,545 high-performance athletes and 1,811 non-athletes.

Dr. Gorczynski said: “This statistical research is important because for so long sport and exercise have been thought to relieve the symptoms of depression, but when played at a high level this clearly isn’t the case.

“There are a number of reasons elite athletes might suffer from depression — the demands of competition and training, dealing with injury and recovery, and also the increasing pressure to win.

“Some athletes can be plagued by body image issues — especially those who compete in sports like diving and gymnastics — which may cause eating disorders and substance abuse. Athletes can also feel vulnerable and depressed if faced with sudden or unexpected retirement.

“Clearly, our results show that we need to do more to raise awareness of mental health issues in elite athletes. Creating a climate where athletes feel comfortable to seek support is vital. Athletes, coaches, officials, sporting bodies — we all need to make sure we’re tackling mental illness stigma and ensuring access to proper care.”

The researchers analysed data from five studies involving elite athletes ranging in age from 12 to 41 years, 54% of whom were female. For the non-athletes, 52% of individuals were female and ranged in age from 12 to 81 years.

Female athletes were more than half as likely to report symptoms compared to male athletes, which also mirrored non-athletes.

Dr. Gorczynski continued: “Although this finding indicates there should be extra support for female athletes to understand and acknowledge symptoms of depression, the self-reported nature of the research means that women aren’t necessarily more depressed, they’re just more willing to report their symptoms.”

The data was taken from studies conducted in Iran, Germany, Switzerland, and the USA.

Dr Gorczynski said that self-reported data does have its limitations: “There could be other athletes out there who chose not to report symptoms because of the stigma surrounding depression or because they want to appear mentally tough — an attribute that allows athletes to excel.

“This also applies to those who don’t do sport.. In future I’d like to enhance the research by using structured clinical interviews to examine symptoms of depression, rather than relying on self-reported data.”

The paper is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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