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Ontario Tech researchers show Special Olympics participation reduces risk of depression in young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Study finds participants are 49 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with depression than their peers

Athletes arriving at the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario High School Provincial Championships in Oshawa.
Athletes arriving at the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario High School Provincial Championships in Oshawa.

A breakthrough research study by Faculty of Health Sciences researchers at Ontario Tech University shows an indisputable mental health benefit, including a reduced risk of depression, among young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who participate in Special Olympics programming.

The research paper, published December 22 in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, examined the rates of depression in more than 51,000 young adults with IDD, who were followed in Ontario from 1995 to 2015.

The groundbreaking study, co-led by Ontario Tech researchers Dr. Meghann Lloyd and Dr. Robert Balogh, demonstrated the important relationship between inclusive physical activity and the rate of depression. The study used statistical modelling of Special Olympics registration data and administrative health records data, and divided subjects into those who had participated in Special Olympics and those who had not.

  • Key finding: Special Olympics participants were 49 per cent less likely to develop depression compared to non-participants.

Depression diagnosis rates among those in each group were calculated and compared over the 20-year period to reveal significant results. The numbers were linked and analyzed at ICES (a research institute that collects a wide range of health-related data in Ontario). Age, sex, type of community (rural vs. urban), affluence, and morbidity of individuals did not influence the outcome of the study.

Background and context

Evidence shows adults with IDD are more likely to experience depression than their peers without IDD, and 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.

The reasons why depression rates were so much lower among Special Olympics participants are not yet well-understood. Researchers are committed to continuing the investigation and suggest 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.

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“These are exciting findings for the team. 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 Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University

“With our data showing the significant impact that Special Olympics has on the mental health of participants, the next step is understanding ‘why’. 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.”
-Dr. Robert Balogh, Senior author and Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University

“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. 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.”
-Sharon Bollenbach, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics Canada

“This research showcases Ontario Tech University’s passion and support for advances in promoting the health of vulnerable populations. We are proud of how this collaboration with Special Olympics advances the university’s Strategic Research Plan and the evolving leadership role in Canada’s research community. Community-engaged research like this is at the core of our commitment to discovering and sharing new knowledge.” 
-Dr. Les Jacobs, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, Ontario Tech University