Dr Alan Currie, a consultant psychiatrist and honorary clinical lecturer for the Assertive Outreach Team, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, who is also a former athlete, was speaking at the International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Brighton.
He said athletes’ attention to diet and weight can put them at risk of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. But these conditions are difficult to spot because sports people tend to be lean and, as with others who have eating disorders, they will try to disguise the problem. Even when an eating disorder is identified, sports people can find it hard to access help from mental health services – a stark contrast to the support they receive should they experience a physical injury, Dr Currie said.
“If an athlete hurts a ligament there’s a whole team of people on hand to help them, but if they have a mental health problem like an eating disorder they can be on their own,” Dr Currie said.
He cited research showing that the overall prevalence of eating disorders among sportsmen is 8 per cent – 16 times the prevalence rate among non-athletic males. The overall prevalence of eating disorders among sportswomen is 20 per cent – double that of female non-athletes.
Dr Currie called for umbrella sports organisations and individual sports governing bodies to be aware that athletes are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders and need help to access psychiatric services.
“The world of sport needs healthy athletes. If we understand how the sports environment can contribute to putting athletes at risk of eating disorders, then we can manage those risks more effectively and let them know there are people to help them,” Dr Currie said.
He added: “It would be great if the 2012 Olympics was about a better understanding of not only the physical, but also the mental health needs of athletes. After all, there is no health without mental health.”
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Sundgot-Borgen J, Torstveit MK (2004) Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in general population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine; 14: 1, 25-32
Note to editors:
The International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Brighton, 28 June – 1 July 2011