Sport psychiatry: a systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes

Sports Med. 2010 Nov 1;40(11):961-80. doi: 10.2165/11536580-000000000-00000.


Sport psychiatry focuses on diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illness in athletes in addition to utilization of psychological approaches to enhance performance. As this field and its research base are relatively new, clinicians often deliver psychiatric care to athletes without a full understanding of the diagnostic and therapeutic issues unique to this population. In this systematic review, we discuss published findings relating to psychiatric diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. There have been several studies looking at the prevalence of some psychiatric disorders in various athlete populations. Eating disorders and substance abuse are the most studied of these disorders and appear to be common problems in athletes. However, to provide informed understanding and treatment, we especially need more research on overtraining syndrome, bipolar disorder, suicidality, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and psychosis in athletes. Research is needed in the areas of prevalence, risk factors, prognosis and the unique experiences facing athletes with any of these disorders. Additionally, there have not been any large, systematic studies on the use of psychotropic medications in athletes. Small studies suggest that some medications may either be performance enhancing or detrimental to performance, but we need larger studies with rigorous methodology. Higher level athletes suffering from psychiatric symptoms often have reservations about taking medications with unknown performance and safety effects, and methodological issues with the current literature database preclude any definitive conclusions on performance effects of psychiatric medications. We need many more, higher quality studies on the use by athletes of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anxiolytics, stimulants and other ADHD medications, sedative-hypnotics and antipsychotics. Such studies should utilize sensitive performance measures and involve longer term use of psychotropic medications. Furthermore, study subjects should include athletes who actually have the psychiatric disorder for which the medication is proposed, and should include more women.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletes / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Psychiatry