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What Olympic Athletes Can Teach Us about Mental Health

Inner strength starts with putting your psychological needs first.

Key points

  • Nearly 1 in 5 U.S, adults lives with a mental illness, and 1 in 6 children struggle with a mental health, behavioral, or developmental issue..
  • Stigmas keeps people from sharing private concerns that are widespread in the population.
  • Reports of Olympians' mental health concerns help many others find inner strength.
Athletes demonstrate outstanding physical abilities
Source: Pixaby

Many high achievers, including elite athletes, experience public excellence and private anguish. Mental health issues are minimized because the culture valorizes displays of mental toughness and strength. Society encourages people to put on their game face and tough out difficulties.

There is a difference between pushing yourself for improvement and suffering through psychological or physical injuries. Thanks to Olympic athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, and also to sports organizations, athletes are more open to talking about the fact that your game face isn’t your only face.

Recently, more athletes have publicly discussed the toll it takes to compete on the world stage. These athletes have taught us that we need more open and honest discussions about mental health and counseling. Helping someone find a counselor can literally save their life.

While at times I help athletes and high achievers get in the zone on demand, I also help them understand their own recipe for wellness and to know when they feel off balance. In order to understand when and how to address mental health concerns, we must understand what if feels like to be balanced.

There will be times when schedules and competitions are more intense, which requires increased training time and focus, and there will be other times with down time, or off season, when there is a little more time for relaxation and recreation.

People place high expectations on elite performers and forget that they are whole people with other areas of importance in their lives. It is our responsibility as a mental health community to support people who want to address their mental health. It is a private thing and nobody else’s business, and it is OK to share personal concerns with others to gain support.

Things have been difficult for athletes during the pandemic. Gyms closed for training, and competitions were cancelled. When sports did return, at times there were no audiences, strict COVID-19 restrictions, and now the delta variant might impact events. The stress of not knowing how things will move forward can result in anxiety, which can affect athlete’s physical abilities to compete because anxiety had physiological consequences.

I am often asked what people can do when they experience concerns related to their mental health. Here are three things I want people to know:

1. You are not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (that is over 51 million people) and almost 50% of adolescents experience mental health concerns. Additionally, according to the CDC, 1 in 6 children experience a mental health concern. These concerns can be anywhere from mild to serious. If something is bothering you, call a counselor.

2. Counselors help. There are times when people have difficulties in life. Counselors are specially trained to help them through their concerns. Counselors specialize in many different areas so it’s OK to ask a counselor about their specialty areas.

3. It’s OK to share. Sharing your story can feel like a weight lifted and like you are no longer carrying a secret. Mental health is a private and personal experience, but we know that talking with others and gaining social support helps people. Stigma keeps people from sharing; we as a society need to be better about having such conversations. It is ok to share your story with others, and it is ok to want privacy.

Recent new stories about Olympic athletes sharing their mental health concerns can help people realize that you can literally be the best in the world, and your inner strength starts with putting your psychological needs first. Be well and take care of each other.

A version of this article was also published here.

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