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Mental Health Stigma Among Elite Athletes

April 6, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

While some people are beginning to release the long-standing stigma surrounding mental illness, many are still reluctant to seek mental health treatment when needed. This is a real problem among the general public, but it turns out to be an even bigger problem among elite athletes (a grouping that includes professional, Olympic, and collegiate athletes). 

 

Rates of many mental illnesses, such as depression, have been found to be similar among both the general population and elite athletes, while rates of certain other mental illnesses such as eating disorders have been found to be significantly higher among elite athletes than among the general population. Furthermore, many mental illnesses are proven to hamper an athlete’s capacity to perform to his or her peak abilities, which should give the athletes a powerful motivator to seek out treatment so they can return to the top of their game. Yet rates of seeking treatment continue to be significantly lower among elite athletes than among the general population.

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Men and Therapy

Men and Therapy

In a large review of the literature, a team of researchers analyzed what is holding elite athletes back from seeking mental health treatment. While the researchers found multiple barriers to seeking treatment, by far the strongest issue was the stigma of mental illness. As among the general population, a large part of this issue is negative feelings the athlete himself may have towards mental illness.

 

This stigma may be even greater among elite athletes, as they are particularly afraid of showing any signs of “weakness.” However, even among elite athletes who do not personally have a negative association with seeking mental health treatment, there is an additional issue which is public stigma. As public figures, elite athletes may be more concerned than the average person about mental health stigma among the general public as well as among fellow athletes, coaches, and sports managers. It’s no wonder they feel this way–there is often real reason to be concerned about how any of these external figures’ beliefs about mental illness could damage an individual athlete’s career.

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CBT Therapy

CBT Therapy

Fortunately, a number of avenues have been identified to help elite athletes overcome these barriers and seek treatment when necessary. For one thing, increasing mental health literacy has the potential to reduce stigma and to improve the likelihood of seeking treatment, both among the general population and among elite athletes. Another helpful element in encouraging athletes to seek treatment when needed is identifying mental health professionals who are familiar with the athletes’ circumstances and particular challenges and are able to make the athlete seeking treatment feel understood. Additionally, athletic coaches are in a particular position to influence the athletes that they work with to seek treatment as well as to provide a destigmatized environment in which to do so, so recruiting them to work towards this cause is another step that can potentially make a major difference. 

 

Mental health stigma is a real problem that is very slowly being solved among the general population, and while elite athletes tend to be more strongly affected by the issue, there are promising solutions for them as well.

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