Managing psychiatric issues in elite athletes

J Clin Psychiatry. 2012 May;73(5):640-4. doi: 10.4088/JCP.11r07381.


Objective: Providing psychiatric consultation to elite athletes presents unique and complex issues. These patients present with multifaceted medical, psychological, and performance concerns. We provide the first report of professional and ethical quandaries that arise in treating elite athletes and ways to address them.

Method: We identified studies through a MEDLINE search. Search terms included the following, individually and in combination: psychiatry, athletes, elite athletes, professional athletes, sports, sport psychiatry, mental illness, major depressive disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, specific phobia, psychosis, eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse, substance dependence, addiction, alcohol, anabolic steroids, stimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, sedative-hypnotics, psychotropics, medications, and psychiatric medications. We restricted results to the English language and used no date restrictions. We retrieved all articles discussing psychiatric diagnosis or psychiatric treatment of athletes. We reviewed each article's findings to see if they applied to elite athletes and reviewed the references of each article for additional articles that had been missed in the initial search and that might include findings relevant to the scope of our article. Our search found no controlled data to guide treatment in working with elite athletes. We describe the literature that does exist and present 4 case examples to illustrate diagnostic and treatment issues with elite athletes.

Results: Patient and family characteristics are described as they bear on treatment context. The key pitfalls that interfere with treatment are listed, and clinical guidelines to improve outcomes are suggested. Specific key pitfalls that interfere with treatment include elite athletes' expecting "special treatment," issues of flexibility in treatment to accommodate travel schedules and the need for privacy, and inclusion of coaches and significant others in treatment. Recommendations for working with this population include being flexible within reason about timing of sessions, involving family members when relationship issues are involved, and not compromising on delivering the appropriate treatment, including medications and hospitalizations as necessary.

Conclusions: The challenges of treating the elite athlete are great, but successful treatment is possible.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Appointments and Schedules
  • Athletes / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Patient Compliance
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Social Stigma
  • United States