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Minds matter: how COVID-19 highlighted a growing need to protect and promote athlete mental health
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  1. Vincent Gouttebarge1,2,3,
  2. Abhinav Bindra4,
  3. Jonathan Drezner5,
  4. Nonhlanhla Mkumbuzi6,
  5. Jon Patricios7,
  6. Ashwin Rao5,
  7. Jane S Thornton8,
  8. Andrew Watson9,
  9. Claudia L Reardon10
  1. 1Amsterdam UMC location University of Amsterdam, Dpt of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  2. 2Section Sports Medicine, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa
  3. 3Amsterdam Collaboration on Health & Safety in Sports (ACHSS), AMC/VUmc IOC Research Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  4. 4Athletes’ Commission, International Olympic Committee, Lausanne, Switzerland
  5. 5Department of Family Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
  6. 6NtombiSport (PTY) Ltd, Cape Town, South Africa
  7. 7Wits Sport and Health (WiSH), School of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg-Braamfontein, South Africa
  8. 8Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic, Department of Family Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
  9. 9Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
  10. 10Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
  1. Correspondence to Prof Vincent Gouttebarge, Dpt. of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, Amsterdam University Medical Centres, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; v.gouttebarge{at}amsterdamumc.nl

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The Sports and Exercise Medicine community and other sport stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of the mental health symptoms (eg, depression, anxiety, substance misuse) reported by athletes. In 2019, this led to the publication of the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) consensus statement on mental health in this cohort and the establishment of the IOC Mental Health Working Group.1 Over the past 2 years, the COVID-19 pandemic and related public health measures have presented additional challenges to the well-being of all populations, including athletes. This editorial reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a growing need to protect and promote athlete mental health.

Athlete mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mental health symptoms are common among professional, Olympic/Paralympic and collegiate athletes, with prevalence rates (15%–35%) equivalent to or exceeding those of non-athletes.1 Mental health symptoms are also common among youth and adolescent athletes, with a prevalence of up to one-third in some samples.2 Recent epidemiological evidence collected during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests increased rates of mental health symptoms among athletes during lockdown.3 In professional football (soccer), the prevalence of anxiety and depression doubled during the COVID-19 emergency period compared with immediately prior in both females (N=600; 18% vs 8% for anxiety) and males (N=1309; 13% vs 6% for depression).4 A significant difference was also found in US professional endurance athletes (N=114; 27% vs 5% for feeling anxious; 22% vs 4% for feeling depressed),5 as well as in the top leagues of Swedish football, ice hockey and handball (N=327), all correlated with COVID-19 pandemic distress.3 In Norway, symptoms of insomnia (38.3%) and depression (22.3%) were common among female and male elite athletes during COVID-19 (n=378).3 Among US high school athletes, the prevalence of moderate to severe depression more than tripled during the COVID-19 emergency period compared with years prior in both female (N=1877; 37% vs 11%) and male athletes (N=1366; 27% vs 6%).6 Increased mental health symptoms among athletes in the aforementioned studies might be linked to a range of pandemic-associated factors.7 Of concern, while athletes who have been able to return to sports participation after the end of the emergency period have shown some improvement in mental health, in many cases their mental health has not fully recovered to prepandemic status.7

COVID-19 specific contributing factors

Beyond generic (eg, adverse life event) and sport-specific (eg, injury) factors, it is likely that COVID-19 has specifically challenged athlete mental health (figure 1).1 COVID-19-specific experiences and related home-confinement directives were associated with increased mental health symptoms among athletes, although these effects were somewhat attenuated by home conditioning programmes and quarantine training camps.3 In particular, social isolation (eg, with team and tournament ‘bubbles’), concerns about well-being and financial problems, a fear of body changes with altered training and dietary regimens, as well as uncertainty about their identity, career and future, have been mentioned as COVID-19-specific mental health contributing factors.3–5 8 Loss of athlete motivation, meaning and identity may have also perpetuated depressive symptoms in athletes, especially for those exposed to competition postponement.9

Figure 1

Mental health symptoms in athletes before and through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clinicians’ approach to athlete mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

With alarming rates of mental health symptoms among athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been clearer that mental health of athletes is a significant concern.10 This highlights that while sport confers important mental health benefits, athletes are nonetheless vulnerable to life stressors and major events. The disruptions in sport that the pandemic has wrought can be likened to the mental health impacts that occur at the time of injury and (forced) retirement. Injury, retirement and the COVID-19 pandemic alike bring important changes to athletes’ lives through impacts on daily structure, support systems, livelihood, career trajectories and identity. Clinicians have learnt the importance of checking in with their athletes at any time of transition—whether pandemic related or not.10 Mental health must be discussed explicitly and screening undertaken systematically.11 All sport stakeholders and members of the athletes’ entourages (including coaches) should receive training and resources to be able to identify mental health ‘red flags’ so that appropriate referrals can be made.11 Clinicians should routinely ‘check in’ with all athletes and take prompt steps to intervene when warranted.10 The IOC Sport Mental Health Assessment Tool 1 (SMHAT-1) provides one framework to screen athletes for mental health symptoms.11

A constant need to protect and promote athlete mental health

Athletes’ mental health was a growing concern before the pandemic, and pandemic-related influences will likely continue to have an impact well into the future. Beyond the individual clinician’s work, stakeholders such as governing bodies, sports leagues and event management teams must take steps to improve the mental health of their athletes and to change the culture of sport for the better. This is even more important as the pandemic continues, enabling the mental resilience of athletes to be optimised when they confront an increase in stressors. Team clinicians and management should prioritise steps to safeguard and monitor athlete mental health. High-profile sporting events should highlight the importance of mental health as the United States Tennis Association did during the 2021 US Open.12 Ultimately, mental health assessments, resources and treatment should be destigmatised and more widely available. Athletes should be made to feel that addressing mental health is a priority, and not a sign of weakness. Now more than ever, minds matter! As athletes and as humans, they deserve to be well in every respect.

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Acknowledgments

This article is part of a series commissioned by the BJSM for the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) 2022. The BJSM peer reviewed, edited and made the decision to publish. The lead author(s) received a small honoraria for this work. The series, including open access fees and honoraria, is funded by WISH, which is an initiative of the Qatar Foundation.

References

Footnotes

  • Twitter @vgouttebarge, @DreznerJon, @jonpatricios, @badash13, @janesthornton

  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it published Online First. An acknowledgement statement has been added.

  • Contributors VG and CLR conceptualised and drafted the initial version of the manuscript, with critical review provided by all authors. All authors read and approved the final version of the manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests VG is Chair of the IOC Mental Health Working Group. JD, JP and JST are editors of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Claudia Reardon is co-chair of the IOC Consensus Group on Mental Health in Elite Sport.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.