Special Olympics athletes' experiences and perspectives regarding mental health and help-seeking


Despite the various benefits of sport, athletes have also reported higher susceptibility to mental health challenges. One helpful strategy is seeking help from others such as coaches, peers, and healthcare professionals. However, athletes are often reluctant to seek help due to the negative social stigma against mental health and help-seeking, and there is thus a need to better understand athletes' experiences of mental health challenges and help-seeking. Though there is increasing mental health research with athletes without disabilities, comparable research focusing on Special Olympics athletes is rare. Thus, the purpose of this study was to better understand Special Olympics athletes' experiences and perspectives regarding mental health and help-seeking. Virtual individual interviews were conducted with 10 Special Olympics athletes (M = 34.1 years of age, SD = 16.6). Thematic analysis of the interview data revealed that common factors that contribute to poor mental health include financial troubles, lack of social relationships, and lack of meaningful activities, whereas protective factors included support from family and friends, participating in meaningful activities, and feeling competent. Most participants held positive views toward help-seeking, and heavily emphasized that they would seek help from those with whom they share trusting relationships, such as their family and friends. On the contrary, they reported several barriers to seeking help from healthcare professionals, such as financial cost, poor past experience, and lack of trust. These results fill an important gap in the literature by identifying the unique challenges that Special Olympics athletes experience in relation to mental health and help-seeking.

Acknowledgments: Special Olympics Ontario organization has provided support for recruitment and study design