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Russell et al. (1) published a retrospective cohort study with a population of former professional soccer players with known high neurodegenerative mortality. Findings showed that they are at lower risk of common mental health disorders and have lower rates of suicide than a matched general population. These findings are surprising and different from previous studies, which have used first-hand clinical accounts of ex-athletes who have lived with neurodegeneration (1). We suggest there may be reasons for this disparity and welcome critical dialogue with the authors of this research.
Russell et al. has compared their soccer cohort with a matched population cohort. However, the matched cohort may also include those who have experienced repetitive head impacts, such as amateur soccer players, rugby players or boxers. Therefore, the study represents differences of elite versus non-elite rather than sport versus non-sport. While Russell recognises the healthy worker effect (2), it may have a greater influence in this study than presented.
Men’s engagement in health-seeking behaviours has been a long-standing concern in health care and is often attributed to factors such as stigma, hypermasculinity and stoicism (3). Furthermore, working-class sports such as soccer, require the acceptance of pain, suffering, and physical risk, so these players are more likely to ‘suffer in silence’ than the general population (4). Give...
Men’s engagement in health-seeking behaviours has been a long-standing concern in health care and is often attributed to factors such as stigma, hypermasculinity and stoicism (3). Furthermore, working-class sports such as soccer, require the acceptance of pain, suffering, and physical risk, so these players are more likely to ‘suffer in silence’ than the general population (4). Given the effectiveness of masculine socialisation through sport participation, the absence of elevated medical reporting between male athletes and non-athletes does not indicate an actual absence of a larger disease profile. The lack of ex-elite athletes engaging with mental health support at a hospital may rather be indicative of health-avoidance behaviours.
Mental Health Concerns Defined by Hospital Admission
Using hospital admission records as the primary definition for mental health concerns is problematic. Hospital admission is reserved for the most severe acute psychiatric concerns. Therefore, such records miss many mental health concerns that are better managed in primary and community care settings. This may be particularly pertinent for this study, given that many of the sample have diagnosed dementia, and may be fully supported with their neuro-psychiatric needs by health care professionals outside the hospital context.
The Bigger Picture
It appears that only a selective subsection of data, or part of the picture, has been reported. No information on the length of visit to hospital, extent and nature of medical interventions, public health burden, number or frequency of visits by an individual and any further care has been provided. This information may illuminate other explanations for why there is a difference in common mental health disorders for soccer and match control samples.
Russell et al assert research, “… has placed greater emphasis on psychiatric symptomatology in CTE. Nevertheless, data supporting this association are weak”. This study does little to support or contest this position. While the results presented are novel, they are not necessarily a significant contribution to the debate on the relationship between soccer participation, common mental health disorders and other neurological
(1) Russell, E. R., McCabe, T., Mackay, D. F., Stewart, K., MacLean, J. A., Pell, J. P., & Stewart, W. (2020). Mental health and suicide in former professional soccer players. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
(2) Li CY, Sung FC. A review of the healthy worker effect in occupational epidemiology. Occup Med 1999;49:225–9.
(3) Wang Y, Hunt K, Nazareth I, Freemantle N, Petersen I. Do men consult less than women? An analysis of routinely collected UK general practice data. BMJ Open. 2013;3(8):e003320
(4) Anderson, E., & White, A. (2017). Sport, theory and social problems: A critical introduction. Routledge.