Victoria University (VU) researchers are calling on elite and semi-elite women athletes to take part in a new national survey to address the significant gaps in data and knowledge about their mental health and well-being.
A recent smaller survey led by Victoria University’s Professor Alex Parker, Institute for Health and Sport confirms that women athletes are exposed to gender-specific stressors.
These include; a greater exposure to interpersonal violence (psychological, physical or sexual, which can result in a myriad of acute and long-lasting issues); inequities such as pay disparities, under-representation in the media, fewer opportunities in leadership positions; and the challenges associated with family planning, pregnancy and parenting.
The survey of 39 women athletes across three major national sports revealed worrying mental health and safety concerns:
- Nearly 60% had psychological distress that indicated a likely mental health condition;
- 50% had symptoms of diagnosable depression;
- 50% reported exposure to interpersonal violence; of these, 28% reported physical violence and 27% sexual violence (harassment or assault);
- 31% of athletes reported that they have just enough money to make ends meet, and a further 2.4% reported that they often cannot make ends meet.
Participants who reported exposure to violence reported higher rates of risky drinking, lower satisfaction with life, and higher rates of mental health concerns.
“While the smaller survey sample indicates the results need to be interpreted with caution, they represent a worrying trend. We need to find out more about the gender-specific factors impacting the safety and physical, mental and financial well-being of women athletes. In order to address and improve these factors, we need to hear from a larger number of athletes to better understand the impact these issues have on women, leading to meaningful changes in the sports sector,” Professor Parker said.
“We are invested in finding out if these patterns reflect the experience of other women athletes. We want to hear from any athletes who have state or national funding or earn a salary from their sport. With enough national data, we can provide the evidence to improve strategies and policies to enhance the safety and mental well-being of women in sport.”
Elite athlete Gabriela Garton, the former Melbourne Victory goalkeeper and member of the Argentinian women’s national team, has encountered her own challenges.
“As a female player you are constantly having to perform at the highest possible level, but without the necessary support. As an athlete, you want to go above and beyond, but short-term contracts and low wages mean employment instability. I’m lucky enough to have part-time work that aligns with sport, but I know many teammates who have cleaning jobs or work in service stations and are struggling to make ends meet. When you add family commitments – it’s a lot to deal with and inevitably the stress has an impact on your mental health,” she said.
“There are some support options but they tend to be responsive, not proactive. We need to look at ways of preventing some of these stressors before they get acute.”
“VU is committed to improving the conditions for women in sport,” Professor Parker said. “This is an urgent call to all women athletes to share their experiences confidentially and be part of improving sport participation in Australia.”