PARTICIPATION IN SPECIAL OLYMPICS LINKED TO REDUCED RISK OF DEPRESSION AMONG YOUNG ADULTS WITH INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES
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January 20, 2023 - Toronto, ON
New research led by researchers in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University has examined the depression status of more than 51,000 young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in Ontario from 1995 to 2015.
The long-term, population-based research study, led by Dr. Meghann Lloyd, Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University, is revolutionary in demonstrating an important relationship between inclusive physical activity and the rate of depression.
The study, which uses statistical modelling of Special Olympics registration data and administrative health records data held at ICES, divided subjects into two categories: those who had participated in Special Olympics and those who had not. Depression diagnosis rates among those in each group were calculated and compared over the 20-year period to reveal significant results:
to develop depression
compared to non-participants.
Across the period of
up to 20 years,
the risk of depression was
9.49 per 1,000
in Special Olympics participants
“These are exciting findings for the team,” said Dr. Meghann Lloyd, Lead Author and Researcher with the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University. “This study provides strong evidence that participating in Special Olympics has a positive impact on mental health which means that community-based physical activity programs, like Special Olympics, can be a great social prescription for health care providers and social service workers to use when supporting young adults with IDD in their mental health and well-being.”
“This study provides strong evidence that participating in Special Olympics has a positive impact on mental health which means that community-based physical activity programs, like Special Olympics, can be a great social prescription for health care providers and social service workers to use when supporting young adults with IDD in their mental health and well-being.”
Dr. Meghann Lloyd
Lead Author and Researcher
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University
Evidence has shown that young adults with IDD (intellectual or developmental disability) are more likely to have depression than their peers without IDD, and that they tend to have lower levels of physical activity, on average. Special Olympics provides the unique opportunity for young adults with IDD to improve their physical activity while developing social skills and supporting friendships. By comparing the rate of depression in young adult Special Olympics participants with IDD to non-participants with IDD, the new research concluded that Special Olympics participants with IDD experienced a significantly lower rate of depression than individuals with IDD who did not participate in Special Olympics, in fact, the risk of depression was cut in half.
“This research is a first within the Special Olympics movement, and clearly demonstrates the positive impact of our community- based sport programs on our athletes,” said Sharon Bollenbach, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics Canada. “At Special Olympics, we recognize that sport has an incredible capacity to transform lives, change attitudes and make communities stronger. This discovery validates our mission and further empowers our approach to supporting the physical and mental well-being of our athletes.”
Read the original paper published in
Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology:
Special Olympics Ontario
Fareed Champsi has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 20 years. He leads a very active and social life participating in swimming, floor hockey, curling and athletics.
His mother, Nermin, shares that “Fareed has a very full life. He has made many friends and continues to make us so proud with everything he accomplishes. But when our family first found Special Olympics, we were at one of the lowest points of our lives. We had just lost my husband.” While grieving and rebuilding their life without their father, a family friend told them about Special Olympics. Both brothers decided to join their local swimming program – Fareed as an athlete, and his brother, Aly, as a coach. As the two became more immersed in their sport, and their mother attended practices and swim meets with other parents, they realized they had found a new community to lean on.
“Special Olympics became a part
Special Olympics Nova Scotia
In his early teen years, Sandy Morrison was struggling both in school and in his personal life.
“With my disability, school was hard and I felt really lost and unhappy. I had a group of friends that wasn’t good for me either.”
At the age of 15, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“After my diagnosis I was on new medication and was also self-medicating with street drugs. I was at a real low. I knew I had an addiction problem, but it was so much more than that. I needed help.”
After a 2-year battle with addiction and his mental health, Sandy entered rehab at 17-years-old. He went through just over 2 years of treatment and proudly left the facility sober, but had no idea what to do next. That’s when a friend told him to join the Special Olympics track team that he competed with.
“I left rehab and joined Special Olympics right away. I met a whole new group of friends who didn’t do drugs, who lived healthy and active lives. It was the distraction I needed, and it gave me something to look forward to. My teammates and coaches accepted me for who I was and I started to be more open with people.”
“Special Olympics changed my life. It gave me a routine, and more importantly, a purpose. For the first time in my life I had goals – and look at me now, I achieved them!”
In 1995, four years after that first Special Olympics practice, Sandy competed in track at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Hartford, Connecticut. He brought home two silver medals for Canada. Now, nearly 30 years later, he attends weekly Special Olympics practices with his local softball and floor hockey teams. On top of his sports, Sandy works three jobs and is proud to say he is in a better place with his mental health than he’s ever been.
Special Olympics Ontario
Carly Bryden has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 10 years.
“I have a younger brother and an older brother, and they are both sports nuts. So of course, I had to compete too. That’s when my parents signed me up for Special Olympics.”
Over the years, Carly has participated in soccer, bocce, basketball, baseball, rhythmic gymnastics and swimming. Not only has competing with Special Olympics given her the opportunity to keep up with her brothers and join in her family’s love for sport, it has also given her a thriving social network that has been critical to her development and emotional well-being.
When the pandemic put a pause on Carly’s in person Special Olympics programming, it left her with a large gap in her network of support and daily routine. She participated in virtual programming and kept up with her friends online, but it was not the same.
After more than two years without her daily routine of going to work and Special Olympics, Carly has developed a level of anxiety that impairs her ability to communicate verbally.
“Her doctors aren’t sure why Carly has lost the ability to speak, but believe it could be caused by the anxiety of the last few years and the loss of her routine. She can still communicate with us through lengthy text messages – which we are grateful for – but she cannot find the words through speech. We are hopeful that now that she is back to Special Olympics and seeing her friends, her words will come in time,” shares Carly’s father, John.
Carly has now returned to her regular activity with Special Olympics and although still working to redevelop her speech, is ecstatic to be back with her friends.
“This new research shows what we already know through lived experience, that Special Olympics has a direct impact on not only the physical, but mental and emotional well-being of every athlete involved.”
Interview with Dr. Meghann Lloyd
Ontario Tech University
What do these research findings mean for Special Olympics?
This is a significant piece of evidence that demonstrates the benefits of participating in Special Olympics. There have been smaller studies over the years providing preliminary evidence of the impact of Special Olympics, but this is a population-level, well-controlled study demonstrating a 49% risk reduction in clinical depression for Special Olympics athletes.
Why is this study important?
Evidence-based, affordable, non-pharmacological, accessible health promoting interventions are needed, for all populations, but particularly for people with IDD. This study found that participation in Special Olympics, a relatively common, inexpensive community-based program reduces the risk of depression in young adults with IDD. Hopefully, this builds awareness of the impact of Special Olympics in the health domain.
What’s next in your research?
We are currently looking at funding options to facilitate the analysis of more of the data. There are more questions to be answered. For example, there are more health conditions we could look at, for example cardiovascular disease, we also would like to examine different age groups, children and older adults for example; and ideally, we would really like these results to be replicated by other researchers in a different part of the world, that would increase our confidence in our findings.