Professional Athletes, Mental Health and You
Simone Biles. Michael Phelps. Naomi Osaka. Kevin Love.
Athletes are not alone. 46.6 million adults in the U.S.–nearly 20% of our adult population–face the reality of managing a mental illness every day. No one is immune to these struggles. And things seem to be getting worse. In fact, CDC reports tell us that the global pandemic has accelerated mental health concerns, with substantial increases in self-reported behavioral health symptoms as the physical distancing needed to mitigate the risks of coronavirus quickly turned into isolation and trauma.
Whether it be depression, anxiety, trauma, or another issue, we know that many cases of mental health can be managed with therapy, medication, eating a healthy diet, exercise, or other complementary therapies. But the most important thing is to start. There are a few thoughts that I find crucial when addressing mental health:
1. Ask for help.
Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss options. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment and your physician will listen to your story, evaluate for any co-morbid medical conditions that may be causing or making the mental health issue worse, and work with you to determine a personal treatment plan. Within your own network, be sure to develop your tribe of support- those people who you can count on during the bad days.
2. Healing is not linear.
Mental health can be challenging because it is so much different than physical injuries and illnesses which have a much more understandable recovery. Those who suffer know that there are good days and bad days. Sometimes they are triggered and sometimes seemingly not. Responses to trauma, for example, may be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged. Unlike strep throat, which gets better after a few days of antibiotics, the healing process with mental health concerns is variable.
3. Make the right decision for YOU.
Understand your motivations and make sure that you are aligning what you are doing with what is the best thing for you. Your identity is more than your profession, your achievements, or any other single category.
4. Mental illness is not a weakness.
Too often, people feel ashamed for their feelings. A mental health diagnosis is not a defect, it is an illness. When an athlete sprains an ankle, they will do rehabilitation exercises and treatment to get better. When will we frame mental health in the same way? Mental illness happens when there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and we should approach it the same way we view allergies or asthma.
5. Everyone is going through something.
We might not see it. In fact, sometimes the people who are struggling the most are the ones who appear to be doing okay. Be that great friend and neighbor and check in on others to see how they are really doing. And the next time someone asks “How are you?”—don’t just give the obligatory response that you are “good” or “fine”. Be honest. It may spark a powerful moment.
6. It’s okay to not be okay.
When is this true? Always. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to be lonely. It is okay to feel grief and every other emotion. It is okay to not be okay.
Professional Athletes Raising Awareness of Mental Health
Michael Phelps is the greatest American swimmer of all time with 28(!) Olympic medals. While he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, he didn’t suffer from anxiety and depression until 2004, after his second games, and then again in 2008 following his success at the Beijing Olympics. He later contemplated suicide after the 2012 London Olympics. He has been open about how he used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and cope until he found a multidisciplinary treatment plan that works for him. He has been a fervent advocate for mental heath and yet is still learning to control what he can. When he spoke publicly in 2018 about his struggles, he hoped that his experience would reach people and save lives.
In his 2018 The Player’s Tribune essay “Everyone is Going through Something”, NBA Champion Kevin Love said: “Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need. So if you’re reading this and you’re having a hard time, no matter how big or small it seems to you, I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through. Just the opposite. It could be the most important thing you do. It was for me.”
It doesn’t matter if you are an athlete competing at the highest level or non- athlete. We are all human beings. Let’s gather courage from these athletes to take care of ourselves and others- after all they are proof that those who are achieving and succeeding at the highest levels can also struggle with metal health.
Mental Health Resources
If you or someone you know if struggling with a mental health issue, call your primary care physician or contact one of the National 24-Hour Crisis Hotlines:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
- National Substance Use and Disorder Issues Referral and Treatment Hotline:
- Text the word “HOME” to 741741