Study: Sports help people with intellectual disabilities lower risk of depression

A study on the positive impact the Special Olympics has on its athletes has given John Bryden hope that he'll be able to speak with his daughter Carly again.

Born with an intellectual disability, Carly had been outgoing and was even interviewed by TSN's Kate Beirness as part of a Special Olympics fundraising drive. But she lost the ability to speak as the COVID-19 pandemic made her anxious to the point that text messages became her main form of communication.

"The athletics component of the Special Olympics is one piece but the inclusion, feeling part of something, the socialization that happens every time these Special Olympic athletes get together is huge," said John Bryden.

"We've been to all sorts of specialists and stuff and a few of them have said to us to get opportunities (for her) to speak and be social with her peers. We are fingers crossed, but hoping that her verbalization comes back somewhat."

The Ontario Tech University study found that people with intellectual disabilities who participate in Special Olympics Canada programs have a 49 per cent reduction in risk of depression.

"(Carly) can't really string three words together now. It's just unbelievable, the change," said Bryden. "So we're really hoping that with opportunity and less stress and anxiousness and just being back with her peers and doing things she loves, we hope that things start turning around again."

Nermin Champsi said the OTU study confirmed her own lived experience with the program.

Her sons joined the Special Olympics as an athlete and a volunteer more than 20 years ago, shortly after the death of their father. Champsi said that the programs offered her sons a sense of community beyond school.

"I think it's bang on. I'm glad the study was done to prove to parents that there is definitely an impact on individuals living with intellectual disabilities," said Champsi. "When they are involved with Special Olympics, there is a place, a community or group where they belong. They're at home, they have social connectedness.

"It's healthy mentally, emotionally, physically."

Dr. Meghann Lloyd at OTU's Faculty of Health Sciences led the 20-year retrospective study of young adults in Ontario between the ages of 19 and 29 with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Using administrative health databases at the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences, Lloyd and her fellow researchers compared the data of 8,710 Special Olympics participants and 42,393 non-participants.

They found that 7,032 non-participants were diagnosed with depression, compared to 974 of the Special Olympics athletes. That translates to a crude rate 19.98 per 1,000 among the non-participants compared to 9.49 of Special Olympics athletes.

"We have some evidence now that there is a health-promoting effect of participating in Special Olympics," said Lloyd. "We would hope that potential athletes, current athletes, their families, their coaches, the people who work in the Special Olympics movement, but also the general population and the decision makers and the government and the donors would see that this is more than just sport, recreation and fun."

Sharon Bollenbach, the CEO of Special Olympics Canada, is also encouraged by the study's findings.

"It gives us all a little boost about how important our work is," said Bollenbach. "I think a lot of people think Special Olympics is nice, we do good things for people who have an intellectual disability, but those of us who are in it day in and day out, we know, it's important. It's not just nice to have, it's important work.

"This research also validates that. We are changing lives and we are enriching lives. That's very powerful."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press