The Olympics Amid Mental Health Concerns

The Olympics Amid Mental Health Concerns

Mental health and well-being have dominated topics of conversation this past year and a half. We see the culmination of this at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

In addition to the Olympic pressure and competition that Olympians face, they encounter the external effects of COVID-19, including increased isolation, social distancing, and decreased human interaction. But it appears that mental well-being is taking part in the spotlight. Although athletes have exceptional sports abilities, mental health concerns do not discriminate.

In early June, Naomi Osaka, reigning US Open & Australian Open champion and four-time Grand Slam Singles champion, withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health and raise awareness regarding mental health concerns among athletes.

American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was going through a difficult time and had her Olympic results disqualified because she tested positive for marijuana. reported, "her use of marijuana was a coping mechanism after finding out her biological mother had died."

In January, Tom Dumoulin quit training camp and decided to put the pause button on his cycling career. His team issued a statement where he stated: "I have been feeling for quite a while that it is very difficult for me to know how to find my way as Tom Dumoulin the cyclist - with the pressure that comes with it, with the expectations of different parties." He resumed training months later and recently won the silver medal in Men's Individual Time Trials.

Liz Cambage, an Australian WNBA player, withdrew from the Olympics a week before their opening. In an Instagram post, she wrote: "It's no secret that in the past I've struggled with my mental health and recently I've been really worried about heading into a 'bubble' Olympics. No family. No friends. No fans. It's terrifying for me." 

Most recently, Simone Biles withdrew from the Gymnastics Team Final and the Individual All-Around Competition. She told reporters, "I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That's why I decided to take a step back".

They are not alone in their struggles.

Athletes and Mental Health

In 2019, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a meta-analysis about mental health symptoms in current and former elite athletes. Data showed that out of 2895 to 5555 current elite athletes, approximately 34% had symptoms of depression or anxiety. While out of 1579 to 1686 former elite athletes, about 26% had symptoms of depression or anxiety.

In 2020, Stanford University and Strava conducted a survey that found that one out of five professional athletes in the United States had difficulty exercising because of mental health issues, COVID-19, or lack of motivation.

Last year's survey by Japan's National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry found that 32.3% of Japan's Rugby Top League athletes had suffered mild anxiety and depressive symptoms within the past 30 days. Moreover, 7.6% of respondents reported having experienced suicidal thoughts in the two weeks prior.

Olympics and Mental Health

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) created Athlete365, which 2020 surveyed more than 4,000 athletes. The findings resulted in a shift in the IOC's focus to center more on mental health and athlete concerns. Moreover, they created content to highlight current Olympians who are championing mental health causes. Furthermore, The Olympic State of Mind series at highlights podcasts and stories concerning mental health. The IOC also set up a free 24-hour hotline that provides free support in over 70 languages. The hotline includes structured brief counseling and practical support. Moreover, it offers procedural guidance in case of abuse or harassment. 

A Valuable Lesson

Stepping back from something instead of pushing through takes strength, courage, and self-awareness. Knowing when to do it takes wisdom. While mental health is taking a top role in the Olympics, whether you're an athlete or not, it's important to learn from the example of these athletes and prioritize mental health. These athletes' decisions to practice self-care and take a mental health break are valuable lessons for us all.

If you feel that you've been pushing through too much and experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, please consider reaching out to a licensed health professional in your state. If you reside in Florida, Dr. Carolina Raeburn, PsyD, may be able to help. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Miami who provides a warm and empathic approach to therapy. She provides services for professionals in many fields, including professional sports athletes.

*All the information published in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Any information provided here is offered in generic form. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

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