Olympic athletes are being more open than ever about mental health and pressures of competing
- Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics have been outspoken about their mental health in recent weeks.
- Most recently, Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team finals over mental health concerns.
- Psychologists have lauded Biles and other athletes for helping to break the stigma of mental illness.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics are more outspoken about mental health than ever before, and psychologists are lauding them for helping to break the stigma of mental illness.
Gymnast Simone Biles, the most accomplished athlete in the history of her sport, made headlines around the world on Tuesday morning when she withdrew from the team finals event, citing mental health concerns.
"It's been really stressful this Olympic games... it's been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year," Biles said after her team won silver in the event, reported ESPN's Michele Steele. "I think we're a little too stressed out - we should be out here having fun and that's just not the case."
Her statements and actions put a megaphone on a mental health movement that's been swelling among Olympians for years.
Other Tokyo Olympians have talked of the pressures of this year's games
Biles is not the only Tokyo athlete to speak publicly about her struggles. Skateboarder Nyjah Huston also talked about his experience this week. Huston placed seventh in the street skateboarding tournament on Sunday, despite being a favourite to medal at the games.
In an Instagram post shared Monday, Huston said the pressure of being an internationally renowned athlete "isn't easy at times" and that he's often "really hard" on himself when he doesn't win.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon over mental health concerns earlier this year, told Insider the time off helped calm her nerves and "dismantle some of the pressures that come with the stage" ahead of Tokyo.
Olympian Simone Manuel, who failed to quality for the women's 100-metre freestyle at the Olympic trials this year, said in an emotional press conference that she had been experiencing depression, anxiety, and insomnia as a result of overtraining syndrome.
Sprinter Allyson Felix, meanwhile, told Essence earlier this month she is learning to make mental health a "priority" and know when to seek help from others.
Psychologists say the athletes are making important strides to fight the stigma of mental illness
Mental health professionals are applauding the athletes for understanding that their minds are part of their bodies - and should be cared for with the same diligence.
"The sooner we are able to consistently connect the two, and not always see them as separate, the better we will be as a society," Ben Miller, a psychologist and president of Well Being Trust, said in a statement praising Biles for living up to her reputation as "the greatest of all time" by honouring her mental health.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, also issued a statement thanking Biles for using her platform to put mental health front and centre in Americans' minds.
"Due to the chilling effect of that [mental health] stigma, especially in the sports world, we often only learn about mental health's role in such a decision through rumors or media reports," he said. "But today, Simone's transparency enabled mental health to take its rightful place in the public discourse."
And psychologist Jill Emanuele of the Child Mind Institute said in a statement that athletes like Biles can inspire young people and their parents to speak up when sports and extracurriculars go from fun to mentally damaging. "It's a brave decision to make to take care of yourself and go against all of the pressure being placed on you," she said.
Olympians may be particularly likely to develop mental health issues
While mental illness can affect anyone, Olympians may be especially vulnerable due to their innate natures, public and financial pressures, a lack of identity outside of sport, the post-Olympic crash, and a lack of mental-health resources.
A consensus statement from the International Olympic Committee found that in elite athletes, including Olympians, rates of anxiety and depression may be as high as 45%.
"Being an Olympian is advertised as this amazing thing, and they leave out all of the side effects," including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, figure skater Gracie Gold said in "The Weight of Gold," a documentary narrated and co-produced by famed swimmer Michael Phelps, who's been championing mental health for years.
"And then when all those side effects do happen, there's nothing in play to help you," Gold continued.
The pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was expected to make athletes' mental health even worse. Athletes' training plans and goals were upended, and many had to train alone - on top of reckoning with racial justice issues, Covid-19 related deaths, and financial hardship. Now, the strict protocols, lack of fans, and absence of familial support are likely taking a toll.
"For those who are struggling with mental health, know you're not alone: There are days where I want to curl up into a ball and sit in the corner," Phelps previously told Insider. "But it's just taking a little step forward, taking a deep breath from time to time. It really helps."
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