Objectives: Few epidemiological studies have focused on the psychological health of high level athletes. This study aimed to identify the principal psychological problems encountered within French high level athletes, and the variations in their prevalence based on sex and the sport practiced.
Methods: Multivariate analyses were conducted on nationwide data obtained from the athletes' yearly psychological evaluations.
Results: A representative sample of 13% of the French athlete population was obtained. 17% of athletes have at least one ongoing or recent disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) being the most prevalent (6%), followed by non-specific eating disorders (4.2%). Overall, 20.2% of women had at least one psychopathology, against 15.1% in men. This female predominance applied to anxiety and eating disorders, depression, sleep problems and self-harming behaviors. The highest rates of GAD appeared in aesthetic sports (16.7% vs. 6.8% in other sports for men and 38.9% vs. 10.3% for women); the lowest prevalence was found in high risk sports athletes (3.0% vs. 3.5%). Eating disorders are most common among women in racing sports (14% vs. 9%), but for men were found mostly in combat sports (7% vs. 4.8%).
Discussion: This study highlights important differences in psychopathology between male and female athletes, demonstrating that the many sex-based differences reported in the general population apply to elite athletes. While the prevalence of psychological problems is no higher than in the general population, the variations in psychopathology in different sports suggest that specific constraints could influence the development of some disorders.