Mental Health Takes the World Stage

Mental Health Takes the World Stage

Kelly Pease
Sales and Marketing Representative

With the Tokyo Olympics capturing the attention of the world, the spotlight on athletes’ mental health has been even brighter than the spotlight on who won or broke a world record. Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the women’s team finals in gymnastics is the latest example of a top athlete putting their mental health first. 

The pressure that these elite athletes endure is highlighted in the 2020 documentary, the Weight of Gold, narrated by Michael Phelps, that talks with some of the most well-known Olympians in US history. Shawn White, Lolo Jones, Apollo Ohno, and many more paint the picture of the extreme mental place to which athletes push themselves in order to be on the Olympic stage, and the side effects of those extreme efforts that aren’t always advertised. Though they undergo years of intensive training and display incredible commitment, many athletes say they are driven by fear of failure, not a belief in themselves. These Olympians describe the experience as “overwhelming” or even more severe, “I was beyond nervous and it was paralyzing.”

The documentary includes a focus on Olympic stories that were not so “picture perfect.”  Sasha Cohen, who fell twice in the first 30 seconds of her skating long program, said “I was shell shocked. I was just stunned, and not only are you having all of these feelings, but you are having all of these feelings while the entire world is singularly focused on you, and you hear the sighs from the crowd with every fall or the hush. You already have all of these feelings and then the most dramatic soundtrack is laid down to the most devastating 30 seconds of your whole life.”

It's not just Olympic pressure that these athletes are dealing with - it’s everyday life pressures, like family issues and schooling. Many Olympians were also student athletes, either in college or high school. In fact, more than 1,000 current and former NCAA student-athletes are participating at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Due to COVID-19, many of these students also struggled last year with the stress of packing up and moving off campus in March, as well as the physical and psychological challenges of training for another year due to the postponing of the Olympics. Thankfully, a year later, many are now on the Olympic stage, but without the support of family and friends cheering them on in Tokyo. This is a lot for anyone to take on, especially young students who are dealing with pressure and stress from the pandemic alone.

This pressure and stress is on display this year at the Olympic games with the spotlight on mental health. With some of the biggest athletes, like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, putting their mental health first in unprecedented ways, Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post wrote, “What we are seeing this summer — what we had a preview of in previous years — is merely a public indication that athletes aren’t impervious to any of it. Collectively, they are cutting open a vein. Osaka, the Grand Slam-winning tennis player; Biles, the revolutionary gold medal-winning gymnast; and Manuel, the groundbreaking swimmer — they are just three examples, among the most pertinent and prominent. But what we are learning is that these struggles are both in the spotlight and in the margins and that they should be discussed, not dismissed.” These are students, young athletes, sons and daughters, they are really good at their craft, and at the end of the day they are like everyone else. They are not invincible. Michael Phelps highlights this: “We just have to change the perception that problems with mental health are something to hide and in a world where Olympians are leading the way forward to break down that stigma the impact could be massive.”

One positive outcome of the heightened attention to athlete mental health is a new emphasis on the provision of  mental health resources, not only on the Olympian side but also from leadership. This year, “two new important and tangible initiatives aiming to further protect the physical and mental well-being of athletes were presented today to the Executive Board (EB) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC): the IOC Safe Sport Action Plan and the Mental Health in Elite Athletes Toolkit. These toolkits were developed by the IOC Medical and Scientific Commission, the IOC Athletes’ Entourage Commission and the IOC Athletes’ Commission.” All Olympic and Paralympic athletes have access to what they are calling a “Mentally Fit Helpline,” which is free, confidential support from counselors, available in 70 languages. It will remain available to athletes for 3 months after the Olympics. The service can be used in many ways, including email, phone, instant messaging or by app. They have also created a #mentallyfit page that includes stories from athletes and other resources such as a free Headspace Subscription.

The way that the IOC has come together to support the top athletes from around the world is a strong indicator of the best ways to support student athletes. Christie Campus Health (CCH) understands that not all college athletes need the same level of support, but it’s critical to offer a continuum of care that can meet each student where they are in their mental health and wellness journeys. CCH offers 24/7 mental health support staffed by licensed clinicians, regardless of student location. Headspace is included in the CCH platform of services, providing an evidence-based mindfulness and meditation solution. 

CCH partner schools, the University of Georgia and the University of Oregon are in the top 10 for sending the most student athletes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. CCH supports all students including student athletes with best-in-class mental health services, so that no student ever has to feel alone or unsupported.

 

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