Athletes and Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma

Syrell Doanne V. Nietes

For nearly a decade, Seventh-timer Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles seemed not only unbeatable but unshakeable.

She would reel off the most difficult gymnastics maneuvers with a daredevil's spirit and an artist's passion, her smile brighter than the 25 world championship medals she won and the five she won while dominating the 2016 Rio Olympics.

She was dubbed the GOAT — greatest of all time — and she embraced the title with good humor, donning leotards adorned with a glittery goat—until July 2021-- when she withdrew from the Olympic all-around gymnastics competition to focus on her mental health.

Behind the perky hair ribbons and spangles was a young woman bruised by life. She took the critical step of seeking help for the anxiety and doubts that had recently eroded her confidence on the gym floor for a long time ago. When her nerves resurfaced in public again in Tokyo, a terrifying and potentially debilitating state of disorientation known among gymnasts as "the twisties" happened midair. The incident was enough to make her call off her stint.

Data from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) shows that up to 35 percent of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest in different forms. Depression and anxiety, in particular, have a stigma that makes people unwilling to talk about their issues. Prevalence of mental health among athletes is high-- unfortunately, the world of competitive sports espouses the belief that athletes should be mentally tough, fueling the stigma of seeking psychological support.

According to the Department of Health (DOH), the stigma for Filipino athletes is compounded by poorly resourced mental health care, where only 3–5% of the country's total health expenditure is appropriated towards mental health, resulting in high out-of-pocket costs. Additionally, the DOH quoted that there is a shortage of mental health professionals and facilities in the country, with only 0·52 psychiatrists, 0·07 psychologists, 4·95 psychiatric hospital beds, and 0·02 community-based mental health facilities per 100 000 people.

There was this time when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott opened up about his mental health in the North Texas region after his brother committed suicide. With all of the expectations that come with being a National Football League star, Prescott's decision to open up about his mental health following the tragedy sparked both positive and negative reactions. Skip Bayless, a FOX Sports analyst, criticized Prescott for being a weak leader, saying he did not "have sympathy for him going public with 'I got depressed.'" Scrutiny like Bayless' adds to an already stigmatized topic.

Furthermore, in the Philippines, First Filipino Olympic Gold Medallist Hidilyn Diaz admitted on receiving a psychologist’s help in keeping her sane throughout her journey to gold. She had gone through her share of mental anguish, particularly grappling with anxiety and fear, including when she was implicated by Malacañang in a later-debunked destabilization plot back in 2019.

What these accusations failed to account for was that no matter an individual’s level, no one is immune from feeling immense mental strain.

As the societal stigma of mental health has begun to wear off, athletes’ ever-present mental struggles have made their way to the forefront of sports. When you put elite athletes, people who are supposed to be big, strong, and indestructible in the eyes of fans, under the microscope– the stigma is magnified even greater. However, even though Olympic athletes are adorned with medals and celebrated in the public eye, that does not mean they are incapable of breaking.

Highlighting mental wellness as a major contributor to athletic performance, not only aims to reduce psychiatric symptoms, but also helps circumvent athletes' reluctance to seek professional help. With high-profile athletes like Biles and Diaz prioritizing their mental health, and being open about what they were experiencing, and not “toughing it out” or stifling their feelings like generations of athletes have had to do, these icons did more than spare themselves injury or defeat. It triggers an important shift in the narrative of mental health in sports. As more athletes speak out, it gives others the push to ask for help and normalize mental health as part of the conversation.

Pressures can take a toll on athletes at all levels of competition. The sports community collectively needs to reassure athletes that their mental health is more important than their desire to please those around them. Then perhaps, there would be fewer athletes who sink into pits of their own depression if all athletes were taught that mental health conditions were not signs of weakness but rather serious injuries with a path to healing.

Published: April 20, 2022