Athletes hit with depression and anxiety

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Athletes hit with depression and anxiety

Ebony Garlett, Reporter

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Exercise is promoted as being good for mental and physical health but some elite athletes are experiencing the opposite effect.

Australian netballer Sharni Layton explained to PerthNow that she has felt “really alone at times’’. Rated as one of the world’s leading defenders, Layton said she did not know how bad it was before taking time out from the game.

Athletes are constantly straining themselves, psychologically and physically. They call these stresses ‘burn out’, but this is a loose term that can easily mean a number of things whether it be both physical and psychological or just physical.

If we focus on the psychological demands of being an elite athlete – such as training volume, mental and physical fatigue, spatial separation of family and friends or time management problems – they may lead to reduced mental and physical recovery.

A large scale study published in March in Frontiers in Physiology found that athletes in particular age groups, 12–14 years and 15–18 years, score higher on depression and anxiety. The aim of the study was to assess overall symptoms of anxiety and depression in young athletes as well as possible sex differences. All of the young people doing this experiment had elements of resistance training in their schedule.

The study proved that athletes in this age range are more susceptible to getting over stressed which led to symptoms of anxiety and depression. In contrast, a large number of those were intercollegiate student-athletes, who have higher anxiety symptom rates of up to 37%, but similar rates of depressive symptoms at 21%.

It has been suggested that transition stages in an athletic career are accompanied by increased stress levels and emotional imbalances.

Finally, on an athletic level young athletes are faced with the challenges of developing sport-specific skills and techniques, increased training volumes and intensities, and higher competition frequencies. These multiple demands might be associated with an increased occurrence rate of anxiety or depressive symptoms. However, far more research is needed.

Likely reasons for these high rates are the elevated risk of injuries. Interestingly though in the experiment once athletes retire their depression and anxiety levels peak, then lower and plateau.

Layton said, “I was in a really bad spot mentally. And like any other injury, if you do your ankle, strain your hamstring, you can’t play at your best.”

“It was about learning who I am”, she added, explaining she didn’t know her place outside being a crucial player in a netball team.

Last year SBS Insight had a two-part edition on Australian athletes who have openly admitted to struggling with mental health issues, addiction and coming to terms with their identities after retiring from the sports in which they became champions.

AFL star Barry Hall retired in 2011, ending his career with the Western Bulldogs after a seven-year stint with the Sydney Swans, and said he struggled mentally with the lack of routine that comes with the life of an ex-athlete in retirement.

“I didn’t want to prepare to the best of my ability to perform on the weekend. I think at that stage that’s the time to give up the game. Did I struggle after the sport finished? Absolutely.

“I had two or three months … that I really struggled. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t answer mates’ phone calls, I was eating terribly, drinking heavily. A tough time. And look, I didn’t know at that stage it was a form of depression.”

Many of the athletes said they went through an identity crisis, explaining that after the sport they didn’t know where they fit in society. The sport was their main calling and something they had achieved to the fullest extent. As they transitioned into normal life they had to start from the bottom in a sense and discover new talents.

A key thing for elite athletes is to create a healthy work life balance. For many of these athletes, their sport was their main career and like any career change it was scary.


If you are experiencing depression, suicidal tendencies or just need someone to talk to help is available. Lifeline: 13 11 44. Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

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