By Laura Greenstein | Aug. 05, 2016
Why is it that Olympians are so often asked about their physical health but rarely about their mental health? Many of them have admitted to various health issues they’ve overcome, but so few have opened up about living with a mental health condition. This is somewhat surprising due to the immense mental component of being an Olympic athlete. Many Olympians have commented that the mental aspect of the game far exceeds the physical. Therefore, coping with the symptoms of a mental health condition could potentially make competing more of a challenge—quite similar to how a physical injury would make competing more challenging. But even if it is more challenging, living with a mental health condition wouldn’t prohibit someone from being able to compete or win.
Olympians who have told the world that they live with a mental health condition almost always do so after their career as an Olympian has ended. Of course, there are exceptions, such as gold-medalist swimmer Allison Schmitt who is currently competing in her third Olympics. Schmitt has bravely shared her personal story of living with depression. She had been struggling in silence for years, but after her cousin took her own life, Schmitt felt compelled to talk openly about her depression.
Statistically speaking, Schmitt is not the lone Olympian in this year’s Rio games living with a mental health condition. There are 554 athletes competing in the 2016 Olympics on the USA team. Since 1 in 5 adults live with a mental health condition, approximately 110 of these athletes live with a mental health condition. Yet, only a handful have spoken out.
So why don’t Olympians talk freely about mental illness, if they have it? Probably stigma. Athletes want to be viewed as strong and empowered, and rightly so. They don’t want the public shaming them for any type of issue or condition, but especially one that is so heavily stigmatized in our society.
But the simple truth is: Being able to manage symptoms well enough to handle the highest pressure competition in the world, proves the fact that living with mental illness doesn’t mean you’re weak. And that some of the strongest, most motivated individuals in the world have these struggles as well.
We need to encourage athletes to open up about their mental health. It could alter society’s perception of what someone living with a mental health condition is capable of achieving. We need to break the stigma that is keeping these world class athletes silent.
-Courtesy of NAIMI