Olympic Athletes Champion Honesty About Mental Health

By Anna McKenzie – Reposted from The Meadows

The postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo showcased more heroes than those who won medals. The aftermath of COVID-19 and an extra year of training took its toll on many athletes, and several of them spoke out about their physical, emotional, and mental health struggles. In fact, the topic of mental health has become more prominent in recent years, and admissions among the elite have been all the more frequent. Celebrities and professional athletes are not exempt from mental health disorders, stress-related conditions, and burnout. Olympic athletes have always been role models, but now many have also become mental health advocates as a result of their own personal challenges.

Simone Biles Sets an Example After Withdrawing from Olympic Competition

When a person who is largely regarded as the greatest female gymnast of all time withdraws from a competition, the world takes notice. Simone Biles, who already has a handful of Olympic medals and dozens of World medals, had seemed out of sync both at the Olympic trials and during the team qualification at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Ordinarily, one of the most reliable performers in gymnastics — with an arsenal of tricks pushing the boundaries of the sport — Biles appeared notably off-kilter as the team gymnastics final in Tokyo began. After a scary vault performance early in the competition, Biles withdrew, feeling that she was not mentally focused and was risking the team’s potential to win a medal. In a statement, USA Gymnastics confirmed that Biles had stepped back in order to protect her mental health.

Biles indicated that her courage to withdraw was inspired by Naomi Osaka, an Olympic tennis player who departed early from the 2021 French Open for mental health reasons. Osaka went public about having struggled with depression and anxiety after winning the 2018 US Open, where she was booed for defeating fan favorite Serena Williams. During the French Open, Osaka sought to dial down her emotional stress by not attending a press conference. After organizers fined her $15,000 for the absence (a common penalty for players who skip press conferences), Osaka withdrew completely from the event, turning controversy into a conversation about athletes and mental health. 

Osaka was bestowed the honor of lighting the Olympic Torch at the Tokyo Games. While she was favored to win a medal, she was knocked out of the women’s singles competition in the third round. Backlash followed, highlighting that mental health is still a stigmatized subject around the world. However, the way athletes are treated in the public eye is becoming a larger focal point. 

The Connection Between Physical Health and Mental Health

The Connection Between Physical Health and Mental Health

2019 study examining the mental health of elite athletes (those performing at the professional, Olympic, or collegiate level) found that the prevalence of mental health issues among this group ranged between 5% to 35% over the course of a year. For male athletes competing in team sports, rates of anxiety and depression reached up to 45%. Mental health conditions and eating disorders were also prominent in female athletes, and among those at the collegiate level, up to 25% suffered from both depression and an eating disorder. 

Physical health issues are tied to mental health, especially for elite athletes, whose careers may depend on how quickly they recover — or their ability to perform post-injury. In one respect, medications for mental health conditions can sometimes impair athletic performance through side effects. In another respect, physical injury can spark or exacerbate emotional or mental distress. Fear of career loss or impairment, loss of income, and the weight of public perception may all factor into an athlete’s mental health struggles. Among elite athletes, over 14% reported symptoms of social anxiety, and 6% met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Ironically, psychological distress can actually delay the physical healing process and suppress the immune system. 

Further, the study revealed that athletes suffering from sports-related musculoskeletal injuries or concussions tend to experience symptoms of PTSD. Because trauma can be complex and worsen over time, symptoms may not appear until much later. In fact, trauma symptoms can often be hard to diagnose in elite athletes, given that they regularly compartmentalize their emotions in order to perform in high-pressure situations. 

Healing the Mind, Body, and Spirit

Olympic athletes and other elite performers are coming to grips with the mind, body, spirit connection — and they are underscoring its importance. While we may be able to compartmentalize how we feel for certain periods of time, we can’t compartmentalize an injury, whether it occurs physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. The path to complete restoration lies in addressing our health holistically instead of in pieces. 

A high degree of stress can take its toll psychologically for everyone from elite athletes and CEOs to blue-collar workers, parents, college students, and the unemployed. No one is immune from mental health challenges, and those who are regularly at risk of physical harm are at an increased risk of suffering from emotional and psychological disorders. Alcohol and drugs, commonly seen as the “answer” to self-medicate mental health symptoms, can quickly cause greater problems.

For individuals struggling with mental health conditions, substance use disorders, chronic pain, or trauma symptoms, healing is possible with treatment and support. And as public figures like Olympic athletes champion honesty about physical and mental health conditions, more people may begin to recognize that these issues matter to everyone and help is within reach for anyone who is suffering.

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