Why Don’t More Olympians Talk About Mental Illness?
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.