News National Are elite athletes more prone to depression?

Are elite athletes more prone to depression?

The New Daily Ian Thorpe
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NRL star Darius Boyd last week joined a growing list of high-profile elite athletes to make headlines over a battle with depression.

Boyd has been admitted to a mental health clinic to seek treatment for the illness and his return to the game has been put on hold indefinitely.

On face value, elite athletes experiencing depression appears to be cropping up more and more often.

Swimming great Ian Thorpe and former AFL player Anthony Koutoufides were among those to publicly acknowledge struggling with depression this year.

In April, AFL player Mitch Clarke, at age 26 and in his prime, walked away from a lucrative contract and retired from the game to concentrate on his ongoing battle with mental illness.

Darius Boyd. Photo: AAP

Different to the rest of us?

While the perception that elite athletes experience depression more than your average person seems a logical conclusion, some experts says the rate of depression among sports stars is no greater the general population.

Kirsten Peterson, head of performance psychology at the Australian Institute of Sport, says elite athletes suffer depression at the same rate as society generally and places the perception down to the high-profile status of stars.

“It’s very similar to the population as a whole,” she says.

“Athletes are no more likely to have mental health issues than the general population.”

Ms Peterson does believe that sports stars are less likely to reveal their depression due to a long-held cultural mentality of staying tough.

She says sports stars which tend to struggle most are those who fail to build lives outside of the game.

“They’re retiring at the peak of their lives. You know it’s coming [retirement]. What we do find is athletes who don’t develop other parts of their lives will struggle.”

Ms Peterson commended the support thrown behind Boyd by teammates and fans and says the discussion of the issue in the media could have a positive effect on others seeking treatment.

Publicising the issue

The annual beyondblue cup, played on Saturday in the AFL between Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans, has been running since 2006 and aims to raise awareness about depression.

Deputy CEO, Dr Brian Graetz, says the prevalence of mental health issues among elite athletes was hard to “get a handle on” in terms of reliable research.

Dr Graetz acknowledged that athletes were obviously in a highly stressful occupation where individual performance is often critical.

He cited injuries, setbacks, a drop off in form, and scrutiny from the public, as contributing factors that could lead to depression.

Like Ms Peterson, Dr Graetz agreed the issue of retirement plagued many sports stars that had nothing to fall back on and were heavily invested emotionally in clubs and friendship groups.

“For many of them they finish really young and the question is ‘What do I do now?’.”

Dr Graetz says high-profile elite athletes who come out with their struggles publicly should be given a pat on the back.

“It’s a very courageous thing they’re doing,” he says.

“It’s really important for the Australian public to realise that depression doesn’t discriminate.

“It really says a lot and makes a strong statement. It’s something to be applauded.”

For help or information on depression and suicide:   

• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
• MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
• Beyondblue support service: 1300 22 4636
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263)