The Paralympic Games, involving athletes with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, began this week in Sochi. Grown from a small competition of British World War II veterans in 1948, the Paralympics will include 692 athletes from 45 countries, competing in 5 sports and 7 disciplines.
Some of the athletes have congenital deficits. Michael Bruegger (Skier, Switzerland) was born with a deformed right leg. Since birth, the right side of Markus Salcher’s (Skier, Austria) body has been paralyzed. Vincent Gauthier-Manuel (Skier, France) was born with his left arm missing.
Others lost limbs as a result of tragic accidents. At 17 years of age, while riding a motorcycle, Evan Strong (Snowboarder, U.S.) was hit by a vehicle and his left leg had to be amputated. Claudia Loesch (Skier, Austria) became a paraplegic after a car accident at age 5.
Others suffered illness that led to physical disability. Amy Purdy (Snowboarding, U.S.) had both legs amputated after surviving bacterial meningitis when she was 19 years old. Bibian Mentel-Spee (Snowboard, Netherlands) was a 6-time Dutch champion in half-pipe and snowboard cross events. She was on her way to qualifying for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic games before she lost her lower right leg to cancer.
The stories can break your heart. They also can help you see the power of the human spirit.
The Paralympic Games are designed to emphasize ability and achievement, not disability, putting the spotlight on people who overcame incredible odds.
Watching athletes with disabilities accomplish the nearly unthinkable made me realize that others who struggle with their own demons, such as people with mental illness, also have accomplished greatness. They include:
The Mental Health Advocacy website lists scores of successful actors, artists, musicians, poets, writers, sports figures, entrepreneurs, and business leaders with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Take a look at the list. It’s impressive.
Unlike competitors in the Paralympics, whose disabilities are easy to spot, many people with mental illness are able to hide their illnesses. They hide because they know life will be more difficult if they don’t.
Occasionally, however, some with mental illness achieve success, stop hiding, and become role models and advocates for people with mental illness. Women like Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., Elyn Saks, J.D., and Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.—mental health professionals who have waged life-long struggles with their own serious mental illnesses—truly inspire.
It was not until these women had reached the pinnacle of their careers that each came forward with the truth about her illness. Redfield Jamison didn’t publish her memoir until she was 49. Saks was 53. Linehan told her story when she was 68 years old.
People with mental illness, like many of the athletes participating in the Paralympic Games, often face odds that many would find insurmountable. Yet, people with mental illness, like people with physical disability, can accomplish much with the right supports.
As we celebrate the Paralympics Games, it’s time to celebrate those who soar and refuse to let illness or disability define them. But it’s also time to recognize that there would be many other people—including many suffering from mental illness—who could and would contribute productively to society if only the right supports were more widely available.
Someday maybe we’ll give medals to people with mental illness who make extraordinary contributions just as we now give recognition to the Paralympic athletes.
For now, do you know someone with mental illness who deserves a medal? Tell me about them.