What the Olympics Taught us About Mental Health

Every two years, we gather together and watch in awe as athletes representing our countries compete in the biggest competition worldwide–the Olympics. But this year felt different.

This year, as we watched our champions, we were given a glimpse into their lives as human beings, instead of just elite athletes; people who experience pain, tribulations, and mental health issues.

After the incredibly intense and exhausting past year and a half, as we navigated through a global pandemic, this added stress on both the bodies and minds of the competing athletes. It brings up the questions:

  • How do these athletes handle the exhaustion from daily training?
  • How do they manage the loneliness of being away from their families?
  • How to they shoulder the pressure of knowing their entire country is counting on them?
  • And on top of all of those: How are they coping with the prevalence of COVID-19?

It’s no question that Olympic-level athletes experience higher levels of stress and mental health issues than amateurs. According to a clinical study by the International Olympic Committee in 2019, mental health disorders occur in 5-35 % of elite athletes. This seems like a very broad number, but there are factors to keep in mind, such as age and past experiences. Many Olympic athletes spend the majority of their teenage years (important years for development) training day in and day out, and experiencing the stress and pressure of qualifying for the Olympics, and then representing their entire country once they arrive. The side-effects of growing up to be an elite international athlete became even more apparent when Simone Biles withdrew from her team final to focus on her mental health.

Although shocking to a lot of viewers, it seemed inevitable to others; that an elite athlete (especially one who has already experienced trauma in her young life) would at some point need to make the decision between competing or putting their mental health first. We applaud Simone for what she chose to do, and want to shed some light on why this was such a big deal, and what barriers she broke down by setting this example for both young and old viewers and athletes.

The International Olympic Committee’s study focused largely on the stigma surrounding mental health in the Olympics, saying that their study showed “participants’ written and verbal data suggested that stigma was the most important perceived barrier to seeking help for young elite athletes”, and even explaining that stigmatization is one of the main reasons elite athletes do not seek psychological help for any anxiety, depression, disordered eating, etc. Simone Biles’s decision not only gave her the time and space she needed to take care of herself but paved the road for many future athletes to feel it’s okay (and even encouraged) to do what’s right for their mental health. Many people feel that going to the Olympics is the greatest honor an athlete can have; but in reality, caring for their minds as much as they care for their bodies is much more honorable and brave in our opinion.

In order to recognize Biles’ decision to withdraw, we must also take a look at the factors that made this possible, and how things are changing in the Olympics–and in society in general.

According to an article about Biles in Time Magazine, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was the first year Team USA had mental health services along for the competition. In their interview with psychologist and the mental health services director Jessica Bartley, she explained that they received at least 10 calls daily regarding the mental health of the team. The fact that Team USA brought a team of mental health experts with them this year, proves that a) it was necessary this year, and b) it will be necessary for future Olympic games. Another reason Biles may have felt more comfortable and ready to take this step for herself may be that mental health is much more talked about and accepted in today’s society, and especially due to COVID-19.

Programs and charities such as Bell Let’s Talk day in Canada, have shed some light on mental illness and opened up the doors for discussion, leaving behind some of the stigmas that older generations may have experienced. COVID-19 left many people cooped up in their houses, going for months–or even a year in some cases without seeing their families and friends face-to-face. This has caused mental health issues to move to the forefront of discussion and has made it more acceptable to reach out for help and let people know when they are struggling.

As the Olympics came to an end this year, it’s important to take a step back and recognize that even though they may be stronger and faster than the average person, elite athletes still experience the same trials and tribulations that we do. They miss their families, they experience anxiety, and they struggle with their mental health. While they may receive medals and awards and experience much more than we might in our entire lifetime, try to remember that they aren’t so different than the rest of us, and if an Olympic athlete can withdraw from a competition with literally the entire world watching than we believe you have the strength to tell a close friend or family member if you are struggling, too.