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The Invisible Competition: Athletes and Mental Health

Phelps, DeRozan, and Love open up about mental health issues and seeking help.

Celebrities have been opening up about their mental health struggles. Kristen Bell, Gabrielle Union, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Mariah Carey, and Prince Harry are among the stars who have been sharing their diverse stories, from struggles with anxiety to trauma. Athletes are among the celebrities who are using their platform to promote mental health awareness. Michael Phelps, DeMar DeRozan, and Kevin Love have all recently stepped forward, and are shattering the misconception that their battles to success were merely physical feats. Phelps clarifies that what we may have seen as rogue behavior resulting in arrests were actually evidence of his struggles with anxiety and depression. NBA All-Stars DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers have shared a similar message: that the biggest challenges they face take place beyond the court. The experiences of these high-achieving athletes prove that we need to improve the visibility of mental health struggles in the sports world.

We need to talk about stigma.

The lack of mental health awareness and education has allowed stigma to persist as a problem in our modern world. Distorted views about mental health can cause individuals who are struggling to feel confused, isolated, embarrassed, and ashamed. Further, these sentiments may be enhanced for athletes and can serve as obstacles in the journey towards getting help.

We need to talk about strength.

One stigmatized belief is that a mental health struggle is a sign of weakness. This conflicts with the idea of an athlete as an example of someone who is in optimal health. This distortion demonstrates the misunderstood concept of health, and the common habit of valuing physical health over mental health. Strength is more than the condition of the body, it includes the mind as well. The need to be in superb shape can cause athletes to develop substance and eating-related concerns. Beyond valid physical challenges, athletes often face pressures, standards, and expectations. Further, athletes are tasked with the need to balance their personal and professional lives. Therefore, just as anyone else, athletes are susceptible to a variety of mental health struggles that can surface from general life concerns.

We need to talk about prevalence.

One in four individuals live with a mental health concern. The high rate of mental health concerns is in part caused by the lack of awareness and accessibility to mental health services. Considering the shame, stigma, and unwillingness to speak up and seek assistance, it is also possible that the amount of individuals with mental health struggles is underreported. Either way, this startling statistic highlights the variety of mental health concerns that affect people across the globe, irrespective of demographics. Love and DeRozan talk about how mental health problems are commonplace and don’t discriminate from person to person. Phelps, DeRozan, and Love serve as examples that achievement, success, and wealth are not barriers to developing mental health concerns.

We need to talk about getting help.

Recognizing the prevalence of concerns, and the risks of unchecked mental health problems, seeking help is crucial. Love shares that one of the best choices he ever made was to seek help. Phelps says he has turned his struggles into a passion and considers his mission for mental health advocacy a higher calling than his Olympic achievements. Mental health professionals can provide help for mental, emotional, and social concerns just the same as a coach would provide support, assistance, and guidance. When caring for overall wellness, mental health is just as important to foster as physical strength.