by Michael D. Anestis, M.S.
In celebration of baseball's Opening Day - and as a Pirates fan, today is Day 1 - I want to take a quick look at some research that has considered sports and mental health. Specifically, I would like to review a paper published by several of my colleagues - Thomas Joiner, Daniel Hollar, and PBB guest author Kim Van Orden - in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2006). In an effort to demonstrate the importance of shared positive experiences in reducing suicide risk, Joiner and colleagues (2006) conducted three small studies. In each, their goal was to examine the degree to which suicide rates could be predicted by sporting events around which communities "pulled together."
In study 1, the authors wanted to look at the relationship between national rankings of college football teams and local suicide rates. Joiner and colleagues hypothesized that, in communities in which college football was "the only game in town," meaning that there were not other similar forms of entertainment (e.g., professional sports teams), local suicide rates would be lower in years in which the local college football team achieved a higher national ranking. To test this, they examined the relationship between suicide rates and national rankings between 1990 and 2002 for Franklin County, Ohio - home of Ohio State University - and Alachua County, Florida - home of the University of Florida. In an effort to demonstrate that the relationship would be stronger in areas in which college football is the "only game in town," they also examined the relationship between suicide rates and national rankings in Miami-Dade County, Florida - home of the University of Miami as well as a number of other forms of similar entertainment. In years in which any of the teams was unranked, a ranking of 26 was entered (which is actually likely to suppress any effect, as the actual "ranking" in a poor season might be substantially higher than that).
Overall, the correlation between suicide rates and national rankings when the two teams were considered together was .55, which was statistically significant (p < .01). When they controlled for US Gross Domestic Product (GDP); however, the relationship was no longer significant (p = .072). When the two counties were considered separately, the correlation between local suicide rates and national football rankings was significant for the University of Florida (r = .66, p < .05), but not for Ohio State University (r = .4, p > .10). These results indicate that national ranking and suicide rates in general are correlated, but that this impact might be better accounted for by the economic situation at the moment. When considered on the level of individual teams, however, the relationship stands on its own in the smaller area - Gainesville, Florida - indicating that when the area is truly saturated by the team, the impact of "pulling together" around the team might be more pronounced. The relationship between suicide rates and national ranking was not significant in Miami. Importantly, the authors were looking at suicide rates for the entire year even though college football season comprises only a small portion of the year. As such, any relationship between these variables is actually fairly remarkable.
The findings from this first study were admittedly a bit mixed, so Joiner and colleagues (2006) conducted two other studies to enhance their confidence. In Study 2, the authors looked at the number of suicides in the United States on February 22, 1980 - the day of the "Miracle on Ice" - relative to February 22 of other years during the 1970s and 1980s. The authors theorized that, in response to the sense of community the developed around the United States hockey team's victory of the Soviet Union in the Olympic Games, deaths by suicide would be reduced, thereby highlighting the importance of feeling as though we belong to a group. The results of this study supported the authors' hypotheses, with the February 22, 1980 suicide total proving to be lower than that of any other year on the same day. This was true even in the 1970s, when the US population was smaller (thereby theoretically lowering the number of suicides without lowering the actual suicide rate). One possible response to these findings could be that individuals became less likely to die by suicide due to "vicarious efficacy," meaning that they felt better about themselves due to the performance of somebody else. To control for this possibility, the authors designed Study 3 to examine a phenomenon for which this is not a legitimate interpretation.
In Study 3, Joiner and colleagues (2006) examined suicide rates on Super Bowl Sunday from 1984 on, relative to the Sundays immediately preceding and following Super Bowl Sunday. The authors chose to begin their analyses in the mid-1980s because, at that point, substantial advertising became more prominent and the Super Bowl itself became a much larger phenomenon. As it turns out, there was, in fact, a time by day interaction, meaning that fewer suicides occurred on Super Bowl Sundays than on comparison Sundays during the same years.
So what can we conclude from these studies? Obviously, the answer is not simply that everyone needs to follow sports and hope that their team does well. Instead, these studies provide supportive (although by no means conclusive) evidence that, when people can pull together around a shared event, they feel connected to their community. A host of variables need to be considered when thinking about suicide risk and we have covered a number of them on PBB, but there is a message to take home from this work: when people can feel connected to others, even through a distant event, their risk levels decrease. So, as you sit down and watch baseball today and wonder whether rooting passionately for a team is silly, think about the times that you have shared with others directly as a result of being a fan and know that those experiences are, in fact, meaningful.
Enjoy the day everyone - even the Pirates are in contention right now, so reasons for optimism abound.
If you would like to learn more about the topics covered on PBB, please consult our online store for scientifically-based psychological resources.