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Yle survey: More than 70 top Finnish athletes report mental health disorders

Athletes said they suffered from anxiety, exhaustion, depression and sleep disorders.

Yle Urheilu toteutti mielenterveyttä ja henkistä hyvinvointia käsitelleen kyselyn suomalaisille huippu-urheilijoille.
About 68 percent of athletes who responded to the Yle survey said they had experienced mental health disorders. Image: Lasse Isokangas / Yle

More than 70 top Finnish athletes reported that they suffered from mental health issues during the course of their careers, according to an extensive survey conducted by Yle.

A total of 111 active and retired top athletes responded to the survey questionnaire, which was sent to 344 individual and team athletes who represented Finland at the Olympics and at various international events between 2010-2020.

Almost all the respondents who reported mental health issues said they suffered from anxiety, exhaustion, depression and sleep disorders at the same time.

One in two respondents had considered ending their career due to this.

"I wasn’t mentally present in the activities. I was afraid I would take my own life. When I was alone, I behaved indifferently and self-destructively," responded one of the athletes who quit his career.

Everyday life impaired

The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim defines a mental health disorder as a condition where a person's mood, emotions, thoughts or behavior impairs his or her ability to function, affects interpersonal relationships or cause suffering.

About 68 percent of respondents said they had experienced mental health disorders.

"There were some problems as early as high school, but I was diagnosed at about 22 years old. Mental health issues strongly disrupted my everyday life," said a female team sport athlete who represents Finland at the Olympics.

Thirteen percent of survey respondents said they were unable to assess whether they had suffered from mental disorders. However, many of them said they experienced various symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disorders, depression and exhaustion.

One-fifth of the respondents had not experienced any mental disorders at all.

Anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts

Of the female athletes who responded to the survey, four out of five had experienced mental disorders — half of male respondents had experienced the same.

"Pressure over appearance and body image add to the problem when there is constant talk of having to 'look like an athlete'," said a female Olympic representative.

About one in three respondents said they had had problems eating. Almost one in five had suicidal thoughts. Some athletes also reported suffering from panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and various addictions.

"At the peak of depression, I suffered from suicidal thoughts, and anxiety, I didn't seek help because I didn’t even realise I was sick," said a male Olympic individual event representative.

Respondents reported that they also suffered from chronic pain, insomnia, travel fatigue and panic disorders which escalated to a burnout.

Story continues after graphic.

Huippu-urheilijoiden kokemat mielenterveyden häiriöt Yle Urheilun kyselyssä.
Image: Lasse Isokangas / Yle

Mental disorders experienced by top athletes who responded to the survey lasted from days to several years. Some struggled with their mental health throughout their sports careers.

"I was pain-free and completely healthy for just two seasons of my approximately 13-year career. The daily struggle with pain and dysfunction was a huge mental struggle," said a former Olympic representative.

The respondents revealed that their problems alleviated as soon as they quit their careers.

One-fifth of those who experienced mental disorders had been diagnosed. Only a few, 15 percent of the respondents, used prescription medication.

Fear of failure and loss of livelihood

The survey found that nearly half of those who experienced mental health problems cited fear of failure as a reason for their troubles. Other top reasons included injury, illness or difficulty balancing their personal lives with their sports career.

"When I didn’t do well in sports, I couldn’t think of anything else. This always lasted from weeks to a few months. Anxiety levels would peak during the competition season, especially if the targets were not met. After I quit I realised how much anxiety dominated my life as an athlete," a retired male Olympic athlete.

A livelihood survey conducted by Yle four years ago revealed that most of Finland's top athletes in individual sports live below the poverty line.

According to Yle's equality survey conducted in 2018, women earn less than men, especially in team sports.

In the current survey, about 40 percent of respondents said financial problems were the cause of their mental health issues.

"Quitting was a difficult decision as life after a sports career was in no way secure. I was unemployed and did not receive unemployment benefits because professional sports is not considered work,” a retired male athlete responded.

Nine percent of respondents felt that quitting a sports career had caused mental health problems.

"After the end of my sports career, no one offered help with a career transition," one of the respondents said.

More than a third said that their mental disorders were caused by self-esteem issues, high expectations, overtraining, and loss or problems in relationships.

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