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Do Rates of Mental Health Symptoms in Currently Competing Elite Athletes in Paralympic Sports Differ from Non-Para-Athletes?

  • Olive, Lisa S.1, 2, 3
  • Rice, Simon1, 4
  • Butterworth, Matt5
  • Clements, Matti5
  • Purcell, Rosemary1, 4
  • 1 Orygen,
  • 2 Deakin University,
  • 3 IMPACT Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation, Deakin University,
  • 4 University of Melbourne,
  • 5 Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement,
Published Article
Sports Medicine - Open
Springer International Publishing
Publication Date
Aug 24, 2021
DOI: 10.1186/s40798-021-00352-4
PMID: 34427796
PMCID: PMC8384934
PubMed Central
  • Original Research Article


Background This study addresses the lack of comparative data on the mental health of athletes in Paralympic sports (‘para-athletes’) and non-para athletes by examining the prevalence and correlates of mental health symptoms in a national sample of elite athletes representative of the population from which it was drawn on age and para-status. Methods A cross-sectional, anonymous, online-survey was provided to all categorised (e.g. highest level) athletes, aged 17 years and older, registered with the Australian Institute of Sport ( n = 1566). Measures included psychological distress, mental health caseness, risky alcohol consumption, body weight and shape dissatisfaction, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and problem gambling. Correlates of outcomes included individual (e.g. demographic and psychosocial) and sport-related variables. Results The participation rate was 51.7% ( n = 810), with valid data available from 749 athletes. No significant differences were observed between athletes from para- and non-para-sports on most mental health symptoms, with the exception of alcohol consumption ( p < .001) and self-esteem ( p = .007), both lower in athletes from para-sports. A trend for an interaction was found for anxiety and insomnia ( p = .018), whereby the difference between athletes from para- and non-para-sports was qualified by gender. Conclusions In a large sample of elite athletes, mental health and wellbeing symptoms are comparable between athletes from para- and non-para-sports, with the exception of para-athletes reporting lower alcohol consumption but also lower self-esteem. While overall mental health and wellbeing symptom profiles are largely similar, attention to areas of differences will help to better address the unmet and distinct mental health needs of athletes from para-sports.

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