Why Don’t More Olympians Talk About Mental Illness?

By Laura Greenstein | Feb. 09, 2018

 

Many Olympians have talked about various health issues they’ve overcome, but so few have opened up about living with a mental health condition. This is 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. So, coping with symptoms of mental illness would make competing even more challenging, just as a physical injury would. But even if it does make competing more challenging, a mental health condition wouldn’t prohibit someone from being able to compete—or win.

Olympians who have told the world they experience mental illness seem to do so after their career as an Olympian has ended. Of course, there are exceptions, such as bronze-medalist figure skater Gracie Gold who isn’t competing in this year’s Winter Olympics due to her struggles with mental health. She bravely shared that she needed to put skating on hold, due to mental health treatment.

“I am still undergoing treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder,” Gold explained. “It pains me to not compete in this Olympic season, but I know it’s for the best.”

Statistically speaking, Gold is not the lone Olympian in this year’s Pyeongchang’s games living with a mental health condition. There are 244 athletes competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics on Team USA. Since 1 in 5 adults live with a mental health condition, approximately 49 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 issue or condition, especially one that is so heavily stigmatized in our society.

But the simple truth is: Olympians can prove having mental illness doesn’t mean you’re weak. Being able to manage symptoms well enough to handle the highest-pressure competition in the world proves that mental illness doesn't have to hold you back. 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. Join NAMI’s movement to stop stigma on mental illness. Go to www.nami.org/stigmafree and take the pledge to be StigmaFree.

 

Laura Greenstein is manager of communications at NAMI.

 

Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on NAMI.org in August 2016.

Comments
Jane
Olympic athletes - or those who aspire to be - live in a fishbowl. The media cover sports in minute detail and privacy is hard to maintain, even if the athlete needs less external pressure. Team members are selected on how "solid" they are. Projecting confidence is part of the competition. So it is not surprising that many athletes do not share their mental health challenges.
3/19/2018 9:22:23 PM

Lizanne Corbit
I think this is a fantastic read, so important to see. When people have a platform provided to them it can be used for so much good. Mental health conversations often times only seem to reach mental health circles -- people, like Olympians, using their platform to help spread the message can be so much more far reaching, and effective.
2/12/2018 6:19:33 PM

George Andersron
This is a good start. Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Times featured to Professional Atlethes who suffers from mental illness.
2/10/2018 10:48:44 AM

Herb Hamblen
When I was a high school letterman in track and cross country none of my friends had a clue how deeply depressed I was. I just felt like I'd never be good enough. In the Marines I turned to alcohol to combat the depression, but alcohol is a depressent and just made me more suicidal. Later, once the alcoholism was under control, I got treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. Life is still rough at times
times, but it's like a night and day difference in how I feel about myself and others. I still worry about things a lot, but the feelings of negativity are almost non existant.
9/2/2016 12:25:43 PM

mary alice pojanowski
i too want to break the stigma. i have fought GAD (general anxiety disorder) and major depression (about 5 major ones in my lifetime). Have been struggling through one now for over 2 years. have been helped by doctors and meds but it still hard for me to talk about with people. It is very painful to live through. alot of work to get through it. would like to talk to more people who suffer with it.
9/2/2016 10:22:57 AM

jackie O'Doherty
Thank you for great report on Olympians and their denial of mental health issues. A mental illness should not define the

individual and neither should Olympic skills. Even Olympic Heroes fall from time to time. Stigma continues to be the big discrimination along with mental healthcare services. It seems noteworthy that with promotion and legalization of marijuana as an Alternative Treatment for Mental Health disorders beginning to gain momentum not one of our senior Politicians has stepped up to lead the Debate and Opposition to legalization of this drug.

glories.
8/31/2016 6:00:48 PM

Jim Becker
Much praise to Allison Schmitt for her courage in speaking out. People need to understand how pervasive mental illness really is and the effects of mental illness on the families.
This will not happen until successful mentally ill people and their families speak out about the difficulties.
8/31/2016 1:51:23 PM

Alex B.
Thank you for posting this. As a competitive rugby player who also is Bipolar Type 1, this was so encouraging to read. Sports/exercise are a great outlet for strengthening mental health for physiologically and socially (i.e when I had my episode, I had a community of caring people to support me as I struggled to get back on my feet).
8/31/2016 1:23:05 PM

Ana
I want to help others. Any suggestions on where to begin
8/13/2016 2:29:32 PM

Athena Kim
I live with PTSD and somatization as a survivor of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. I want to work at breaking stigma and judgments on people living with mental conditions at my best as someone has proved more than to survive with many talents and strengths.
8/8/2016 6:56:47 PM

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