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 modeling of Special Olympics registration data and administrative health records data held at ICES (https://www.ices.on.ca/), 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:
- Special Olympics participants were 49% less likely 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 person years in Special Olympics participants compared to 19.98 per 1,000 person years for non-participants.
- Age, sex, type of community (rural vs urban), affluence, and morbidity of individuals did not influence the outcome of the study.
“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.”
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.”
All the reasons why depression rates were so much lower among Special Olympics participants are not yet well-understood, though researchers are committed to continuing this investigation, and suggest that the nature of socially inclusive physical activity programs, like Special Olympics, likely improves overall mood, feelings of self-worth, mastery of skill, and promotes the development of friendships.
“With our data showing the significant impact that Special Olympics has on the mental health of participants, the next step is understanding ‘why’,” said Dr. Robert Balogh, Co-Author and Researcher with the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University. “How much of this risk reduction is related to the physical activity or exercise of Special Olympics participants, and how much is related to the social connectedness of being part of the Special Olympics programming itself? That is what we have yet to decipher. We are looking forward to working with fellow researchers globally to uncover these answers.”
The research article was published online in full on December 22, 2022 in the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.