Cricketer Jonathan Trott went home early from the Ashes last week citing a stress-related condition.
While the Australian team said they would not use his illness as a sledging opportunity, Trott’s illness is still in the news after a well-known journalist chose to tweet that he did not believe that his retirement from the competition was due to a mental health condition. He has since removed the offending tweets and issued a rapid apology.
Trott’s departure was seen as an example of more openness about mental health issues in sport. Over the years there have been several high profile cases of top level athletes revealing their battles with mental health conditions such as depression. These include Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, fellow cricketer Marcus Trescothick and boxer Ricky Hatton. But are sports people any more vulnerable to mental health conditions than the general population?
It’s certainly true that top-level athletes compete in highly pressured environments and have to deal with particular challenges such as long periods away from home.
But in terms of the research there simply isn’t enough evidence to know if sports people are more prone to mental health conditions than the rest of the population.
This is a relatively new field of research. Traditionally, research has examined sport and physical activity as a means of combating negative mental health, rather than as a potential cause. The potential for physical activity to have a positive impact on mental health is now well established and it is not uncommon for physical activity to be prescribed as a treatment for mild to moderate depression.
Most accounts of mental health issues among sports performers are anecdotal but there is some research out there. A 2011 study of 2067 French elite athletes found that 17% had recently experienced at least one psychological disorder, with females (20.2%) demonstrating a higher incidence than males (15.1%).
In relation to the prevalence of depression, 3.6% of the athletes (2.6% males and 4.9% females) had experienced at least one depressive episode in the last six months, and 11.3% of the athletes (8.7% males and 16.3% females) had experienced at least one depressive episode in their lifetime.
The study suggested that the rates of depression were lower than in the general population, indicating that elite athletes are generally able to cope with the pressures placed upon them. Similarly, research undertaken by Proctor and Boan-Lenzo and Armstrong and Oomen-Early found that among the North American college population, athletes reported lower levels of depression than non-athletes, which indicated that sports participation may have an anti-depressive effect. But this could also be due to a social unacceptability for the athletes to report psychological weakness, which could have biased the results.
One review of the research concluded that, given the inconsistency in findings, depression may be no more or no less likely in athletes compared to non-athletes.
It isn’t clear, then, whether sports performers are more vulnerable or less vulnerable to developing mental health issues than the rest of the population, but what is clear is that mental health issues are relatively common in the population as a whole (one in six adults according to Cooper and Bebbington) and that there is still a stigma attached to mental health. So a high profile sports person speaking publically about their difficulties with mental health can only be a positive thing.