Most Common Mental Illness in Athletes

Although participating in sport has multiple health and wellness benefits, athletes are exposed to unique and intense pressures that can negatively affect their mental health. Athletes at every level of competition, from collegiate and Olympic to professional leagues in the USA are suffering from psychological issues. 

When athletes get physically injured, there is a team of physicians and physiotherapists in place, but when these injuries are invisible, they can often be ignored or misunderstood. However, the tide is starting to turn as elite athletes, like ATP’s Naomi Osaka, NBA player Kevin Love and NHL goaltender Robin Lehner, are speaking out about their mental health challenges. This openness is helping to break down the stigma and secrecy that can make receiving support a challenge. Read about other Athletes Who Have Been Open About Mental Health.

According to Athletes for Hope, the statistics around psychological issues in athletes are alarming. For instance, they report that 33 percent of all college students struggle with significant mental health conditions of which 30% get help, whereas only 10% of student athletes seek support. This is possibly due to a combination of issues, namely concerns about reputation and a lack of time given a heavy schedule of practice, play, and study. Furthermore, data finds that 35% of professional athletes suffer from some of the common mental illnesses that are outlined below. Let’s take a look at these behavioral disorders along with insight into what can be done to address them.

Mental Health Problems and Disorders Commonly Experienced by Athletes and What Can Be Done About Them


Stress is not also always a bad thing and can be beneficial for athletes. When stress is within healthy boundaries it can increase adrenaline – which provides athletes with strength, focus and motivation – and enhance performance. However, chronic stress can wreak havoc on athletes’ physical and mental well-being. It can adversely impact performance, sleeping patterns, eating habits, and overall physical and mental health. In fact, according to the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, stress (and anxiety) are the two major predictors of the risk, frequency and severity of injury in athletes across a range of sports. Discover the 30 Signs of Stress


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has found generalized anxiety disorder in elite athletes ranges from 6% (when diagnosed by a clinician) to 14.6% (when athletes self-report their symptoms). Anxiety tends to be higher in female athletes than male athletes, and those suffering from injuries have more severe symptoms of anxiety than non-injured athletes. There are different types of anxiety, and the IOC has reported the following disorders in elite athletes: 

  • 14.7% with social anxiety
  • 5.2% with obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • 4.5% with panic disorder.

Anxiety often has a devastating impact on mental health and well-being and, if left untreated, can lead to depression. Find out more about the 6 Types of Anxiety Disorders.


According to the World Health Organization, depression affects around 5% adults globally. Athletes appear to be more prone to depression than the general population. A meta-analysis of mental health disorders in current and former elite athletes showed a high prevalence of depression in current athletes (34%) and former athletes (26%). The higher rate in current athletes could be explained by the wide range of sports-specific pressures that athletes experience during their career including injuries and surgery, drop in performance and maladaptive perfectionism. In extreme cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts or even suicide. The British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that an estimated one in six international athletics athletes have experienced suicidal ideation.

Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

Eating disorders (including bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder) and disordered eating (abnormal eating pattens such as restrictive eating, compulsive eating or irregular eating that do not meet the criteria for an eating disorder) are common among athletes. According to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) report, it is estimated that up to 19% of male athletes and up to 45% of female athletes suffer from an eating disorder and/or disordered eating. 

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain developmental disorder that appears to be more common in athletes than the general population: 7-8% of elite athletes compared to 2.5% of the general adult population have ADHD. Common symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsivity and hyper-focus, may enhance athletic performance. However, athletes’ performance and quality of life can be negatively affected by ADHD as they may experience behavioral, emotional and social challenges. Read our article – Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Symptoms, Causes and Treatment.

Problem Gambling 

The American Psychiatric Association defines gambling disorder as at least 12 months of persistent and recurrent problematic gambling with negative consequences. Studies have found higher rates of gambling problems among athletes than the general population. If an athlete starts to gamble, it can take as little as one winning bet to get hooked, and one losing bet to want to chase that loss. That is how the urge to gamble and the addiction cycle can begin. Read our article: Why Do Athletes Gamble More Than Others?

Gaming Disorder

The World Health Organization describes gaming disorder as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other interests and daily activities”. When gaming starts to consume more and more time, it becomes a vicious circle. Athletes are often under pressure so they escape into gaming but gaming then affects their performance, so they game even more. Read our article, Am I Addicted to Video Games? 5 Telltale Signs, to find out more.

Where Athletes Can Turn to for Mental Health Support

If you are an athlete – or former athlete – experiencing emotional issues, do not ignore the symptoms as they are unlikely to go away on their own.

Some athletes try to manage their mental illness with diet, exercise, mindfulness or medication. Others find that talking to family, friends, teammates or coaches can help. If you have tried those options, or do not feel comfortable sharing your innermost thoughts with people you know, then therapy could be the answer. 

At Kindbridge, we offer confidential online counseling in the comfort of your home. Whether you are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, gambling disorder, gaming addition, ADHD, an eating disorder or any other mental health problem, our fully-qualified therapists can help.

Get in touch now and start feeling better today. Call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] to speak to our care co-ordinator.