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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Triathlete Risk

Q. In our small community we have had 3 triathletes commit suicide in 5 years. I am hoping to do some research to understand the risk factors for triathletes. Can you direct me?

A. I am not aware of any research on suicide risk in triathletes per se. However, there is a growing literature on the role of sports and athletic competition in affecting suicide risk.

One study by Drs. David R. Brown and Curtis Blanton (see the July 2002 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise) found that college students who play varsity or intramural sports are less likely to consider or attempt suicide. Team sports can provide a healing social environment, but another factor may be that athletes better handle emotional stress, Brown concluded.

Men who did not play sports were 2.5 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts or behavior, the report said. Of 1,363 men with no participation in sports, 12.54 percent were considered suicidal. Of 428 men who did play sports, the figure was 7.27 percent. Women who were not on varsity or intramural teams had a 67 percent greater risk of suicidal thoughts or actions in the past 12 months, the report said. Of 286 women in sports, 8.57 percent were considered suicidal, compared with 12.03 percent of 2,614 women who were not on teams.

On the other hand, another study by Kokotailo et al (Clin J Sport Med 1996 Jul;6(3):183-9) found that male athletes had a higher prevalence of risky behaviors (including binge drinking, engaging in unprotected sex) than their male non-athlete counterparts. This was in contrast to female athletes, who had fewer risky behaviors than their female nonathlete counterparts.

So, there may be gender effects that affect suicide risk among athletes. It's possible that the cluster of suicides you have seen in your town simply represents a statistical fluke--or maybe there is some factor in common, but not necessarily being a triathlete. For more information, you may want to check out the website http://www.usatriathlon.org/.

July 2003

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