Cross Country Checkup

Canadian Olympians may be at greater risk for mental health disorder, says researcher

According to a recently published study by researchers at the University of Toronto, the prevalence of symptoms associated with mental disorders could be higher among elite athletes than within the general Canadian population.

Recent study suggests elite athletes experience depression, anxiety more than the general population

Figure skater Patrick Chan won gold in the team event at the 2018 Winter Olympics. But in training for the event, he says that he burned out — and that kept him off the ice. (How Hwee Young/EPA-EFE)

With four months until the 2018 Winter Olympics, figure skater Patrick Chan struggled to get himself to the rink for training.

"I was burnt out. I did not want to be at the rink ... It felt like such a daunting task to get myself physically prepared and then mentally prepared to go to the Olympics," the retired skater told CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.

The pressure that comes with years of being in the public eye, training to be an elite athlete — and to be number one — had caught up with him, and he fell into the trap of self doubt.

"That is my motivator, is to be the best in the field. So then the feeling of going to the Olympics [if] the best I could do is maybe come fifth, I was like ... what's the point?" he said. Chan won gold in the team event at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Team USA gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from several events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games this week, citing a need to focus on her well-being. 

That decision, which many have lauded as courageous, has reignited conversations about the mental health of Olympians and Paralympians.

According to a recently published study by researchers at the University of Toronto, the prevalence of symptoms associated with mental disorders could be higher among elite athletes than within the general Canadian population.

Based on self-reported surveys completed by 186 Canadian Olympians and Paralympians, 41 per cent met the criteria for experiencing depression, anxiety or an eating disorder. The surveys took place in December 2019, ahead of the originally-scheduled dates for the Tokyo Games.

"The results of our study, I think, are notable because the data were collected prior to the start of the pandemic," said Katherine Tamminen, an associate professor of sport psychology and one of the study's authors.

Tamminen believes that with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a year-long delay to the Olympics, altering training routines, and isolating athletes from their support systems while at the Games, the effects could be even more pronounced.

"It really highlights the importance of focusing on the mental health of elite Olympians and Paralympians and also that we need to pay more attention to these issues four years before the Olympics are happening, not just when the Olympics are going on," she said.

WATCH | Simone Biles on withdrawing from competition

Watch for signs, says psychologist

The study surveyed athletes who had already competed in a previous Summer Olympic Games and were training for the 2020 Olympics. It examined stressors like training load, athletes' self-esteem, social supports and coping mechanisms, as well as markers for mental disorders.

Increased stress was directly associated with increased prevalence of mental disorder symptoms, the study found.

Kim Dawson, a sports psychologist who works closely with athletes training for competition, says the results aren't surprising.

"Think about in our life, the hardest thing that we can actually do is to get evaluation — someone giving us some feedback," she said.

"Well, these athletes have stepped into that venue to do that, and they're constantly getting evaluated."

Athletes are stoic and disciplined in their work, Dawson says, and that's why it can be important for an athlete's team — including a psychologist — to watch for "behavioural issues" that might signal something more serious is brewing.

Some of Biles's social media posts leading up to the Olympics in Tokyo signalled to Dawson the gymnast was experiencing burnout.

That's something many athletes can relate to, especially as their career progresses. "The longer that they've been in the field, they really start to know that there's more at stake," she said.

Mental preparation key

With younger athletes taking on the monumental task of representing their country at the Olympics, Dawson says it's more important than ever to ensure that they are mentally prepared.

"We have a 14 year old [Team Canada's Summer McIntosh] who is swimming right now," Dawson said. "If they have the physical markers, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the emotional and cognitive readiness to actually survive or thrive in that environment."

Though Dawson doesn't work with young competitors, one of the first things she asks her clients is whether they are ready for the scrutiny that comes with the world stage. 

Team Canada arrives during the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Researcher Katherine Tamminen studied the effect stress has on Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes in a recently published study. (Hannah McKay/Pool Photo/The Associate Press)

Sometimes, she will encourage coaches to temporarily hold an athlete back from competition to develop some of those coping skills.

Chan, who is 30, says that alleviating the stigma that surrounds talking about mental health will benefit up-and-coming young Olympic athletes.

Tamminen's study found that when an athlete received positive emotional and esteem support, they were less impacted by symptoms of mental disorder.

"Sometimes just talking about it and voicing it ... that's where that change can happen in a positive way," said Chan.

"It can be a big change in a positive way being able to share your story and hearing someone else's."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.

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