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Why are Elite Athletes Having Mental Health Issues?

Osaka, Biles, and Vonn Illustrate the Mental Health Challenges for Olympians and All Athletes

The 2022 Winter Olympics are just a month away and it got me thinking about recent events where athletes in their prime had to drop out of competition because of mental health issues. Most recently, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 U.S. Open in the third round after being overcome with stress and other mental health indicators. Simone Biles the four-time Olympic gold medalist, chose not to compete in the individual all-around competition after withdrawing from the team finals  because of a mental health issue.

These are just two examples, but they represent the pressures athletes are under to perform at their best if they are physically able to do so. Mental health issues have never played a more important role in the preparedness of elite athletes as now. It’s clear that Olympic athletes, indeed all athletes, need to be in top mental condition as well as physical condition to compete at their best. 

Many in the public were shocked when they found out that Osaka and Biles wouldn’t compete. Few understood it. What they heard is: I need to step away from this competition and focus on my mental health. How could it be that such world-class athletes couldn’t compete? The answer is they have the same problems we all have coping with pressure, living up to the expectations of others, and being at our best all the time. We need to understand that depression and anxiety are the root causes of mental health problems in part brought on by sleeping problems, irritability, low energy, and changes in eating, and most of us will face them at some time or another.

Make no mistake, most of the public reacted skeptically, if not negatively, when Osaka and Biles withdrew. Very few made the link to their mental health and wellness. Most were disappointed at the decisions made by their favorite athletes. They expected these athletes to tough it out, much like their image in the public. We had not seen this kind of behavior before.

Olympic skier and gold medalist Lindsey Vonn recently opened up about her mental health issues, saying that she didn't talk about depression in the early stages of her Olympic skiing career because part of her viewed it as a sign of weakness.

Vonn won two medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a third in Pyeongchang in 2018. In 2012, she revealed that she had been quietly fighting depression, which runs in her family, for more than a decade and had been taking anti-depressants to manage her symptoms.

Vonn disclosed that part of her didn't understand the impact it was having. And in American society at the time, mental health was not exactly a kitchen-table topic.

"I feel like, honestly, everyone should have a therapist," she said. "It should be like having a dentist or going to a pediatrician. We should all take mental health seriously and do our best every day to make sure we're taking care of it."

Vonn is right. The public needs to understand these athletes and have empathy for them, and embrace these athletes not ridicule them. Olympics

Mental health challenges also affect athletes in college, something rarely discussed. Few people know the story of Will Heininger, a defensive lineman from 2007-11 at the University of Michigan. Will tore an ACL, he went through a coaching change, he battled for playing time and all the while, fought to keep the grades that earned him four Academic All-Big Ten awards.

But Heininger's most intense struggle at Michigan was a bout with something a lot of student-athletes battle on a personal level. He struggled with depression and mental illness.

Heininger, raised awareness for the student-athletes who struggle with mental health during an interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines". In the story, Heininger details what he went through and how Michigan helped him get through it.

"I had emotional pain that was overwhelming; I would wake up, and from morning until I feel asleep -- when I was able sleep -- I had troubling thoughts that were utterly consuming," Heininger said. "Not a minute would go by in a day, without my depression on my mind … this, this felt impossible.

"I was breaking down; I couldn't keep functioning the way I was without any help. It happened one day after practice, tears were welling in my eyes, and I didn't want to cry in front of my football family. My athletic trainer … saw me and took me aside."

Heininger ultimately recovered from his bout with mental illness and depression but continues to be an advocate for other student-athletes who suffer from the same pain.

As Kevin Blackistone writes for the Washington Post, Osaka and Biles weren’t the first star athletes to disclose their mental health needs to the world. But they altered how we have come to understand “mental toughness.” It doesn’t have to mean playing through physical pain or sucking it up or coming from behind to win when losing seemed certain. It doesn’t have to mean rehabbing some terrible injury and returning to competition.

I agree with Blackistone that it can mean owning up to doubts or concerns that prevent the athlete from performing and taking the time to find their balance again. It can mean erasing whatever stigma was attached to a mental struggle, no matter how long or brief.

I’m looking forward to the 2022 Winter Olympics. I can’t imagine the pressure on these Olympians who will have to deal with so much, as stated in my blog. Add to that worries over being infected by Covid-19 and its variants, and it crystallizes the mental health challenges they will face during the games.

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Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on January 3, 2022. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.