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Focus on mental health of elite athletes a must

11 March 2020

'Elite athletes need to be routinely screened for mental health symptoms' is one of the key findings of an Orygen survey of 749 AIS-supported athletes, with one in five reporting they had previously sought treatment for a mental health problem.

AIS Director of Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Matti Clements says athletes are already screened across a range of metrics such as sleep, nutrition and injury and mental health should be treated no differently.

“We need to address the everyday wellness of our athletes rather than wait for a situation to reach crisis point and then intervene,” Clements said.

“Many people think that accessing mental health support is only for someone with a major issue or concern but that is not the case at all. We encourage athletes to use the services we have available to just check in, talk to someone about what is happening in their life and help them to understand and work through any concerns they may have.

“This is why the AIS Mental Health Referral Network offers a wide range of services, from basic mental wellness checks to comprehensive clinical treatment plans.

“When managing physical injuries, prevention is always better than a cure and mental health should be looked at through the same lens.”

The survey found that athletes were significantly more likely to report ‘high to very high’ psychological distress compared to general community norms (17.15 per cent versus 9.5 per cent), and more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety at a level that would warrant professional health care. The findings are published online in Sports Medicine.

Interestingly, the survey also found that elite athletes report better life satisfaction, self-esteem and body satisfaction, and lower rates of risky alcohol consumption and lower problem gambling compared to other Australians.

Orygen Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell explained: “while the results may seem contradictory, it makes sense that elite athletes who are doing what they love day-in, and day-out will have high levels of life satisfaction. At the same time, it’s stressful for them to deal with constant high expectations of success, frequent travel or the risk of injury, on top of the general life stressors they face like the rest of us.”

“We need to make sure that mental health needs are also being identified as early as possible to prevent issues from worsening and providing proper support and treatment. It’s a case of ‘if you don’t ask, they won’t tell,’ so screening is definitely needed,” Associate Professor Purcell said.

“These findings mirror what’s being reported in elite or professional sports worldwide. Roughly one in three elite athletes report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, although the rate may fluctuate depending on when the survey is conducted, such as in or out of season, or the type of sport”

“The findings of the AIS survey point to how critical it is for elite sport organisations and those professionals who work within them, to support the mental health of athletes and to recognise that a significant number are likely to experience mental health symptoms and may require clinical care to restore them to optimal health.

“The AIS has been building a comprehensive Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement system to meet the needs of athletes that is informed by research such as this study,”

“This includes prevention programs and supports like the Mental Health Referral Network that encourage athletes to seek help early, through to providing specialist clinical care when needed. No other country has a system like this for athlete mental health.”

The survey will be repeated in March 2020  

For more information on the 2020 Mental Health Audit and the Mental Health Referral Network visit

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