Simone Arianne Biles, a 24-year-old American artistic gymnast who is frequently called the greatest of all times (G.O.A.T) for her combined haul of 31 Olympic and world championship medals. She is easily the most decorated American gymnast and one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. But she has had to deal with mental health issues since her childhood, with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on account of which she has been on medications ever since. At the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles decided not to take part in some individual games to focus on her mental health. She eventually returned to participate in some events and claimed a podium finish as a bronze medalist.
Before Simone Biles, another Olympics swimming legend, Michael Phelps had also gone public with his mental health struggles – from divorced parents and feeling abandoned by his father since the age of 9, to struggling with anxiety, depression and alcohol use problems, his personal life was chaotic. He was so depressed and lonely at some point, that he contemplated suicide. But then he decided to accept treatment and turn things around for the better and he is now doing very well.
Away from the Olympics, Naomi Osaka, is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in women’s singles, as well as the reigning champion at the US-Open and the Australia Open. She withdrew from the French Open in June, after her first-roundvictory, due to mental health challenges. Serena Williams had also reported bouts of anxiety and depression in the past, needing treatment to help her get back to good mental health.
In football, Tyrone Mings, an English footballer explained how his mental health suffered furing the recently concluded Euro 2020 as he struggled with self confidence and doubts about his ability to perform. He had to go for sessions with the mental health professionals in order to overcome them and feel better.
The public conversations sparked by these high-profile cases of elite athletes openly admitting to struggling with their mental wellbeing has been a mixed bag of positive and encouraging messages as well as critical and negative comments and opinions. Indeed, some have labeled them as weak, selfish and immature. Others have lampooned them for not been strong enough to cope with the pressure of their jobs as athletes.
It has also prompted an outpouring of support and encouragement from former athletes – some of whom have also shared their own experiences, the professional associations, the press and the general public. This has been heartwarming to witness.
The promotion of open conversations around mental health for elite athletes as well as for everyone of us is always a very welcome development. Because in truth, shame and stigma has kept these issues hidden away for too long. The consequence has been lonely and miserable journeys of emotional turmoil and pain – with little or no support or treatment. Some individualswill not even seek for treatment where it is available due to the attendant shame and stigma of being perceived as weak and vulnerable.
What are the facts?
In reality, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. Athletes as well as you and I are equally entitled to enjoy optimal emotional well-being as defined above by the WHO.
Mental health issues can affect any one of us, athletes, celebrities or just the average man like you and I – in the sameway we can have physical health issues. Unfortunately, shame and stigma continue to stand in the way of getting support, empathy as well as professional help and treatment from mental health professionals.
Thus, we will not hesitate to seek for help if we have a fracture of our legs and immediately present to the hospital for surgery or other treatments. And when athletes suffer physical injuries, there is usually a lot of sympathy and good wishes for a quick recovery sent their way.
However, when the challenges are related to their mental health, the support is underwhelming and they may become targets of negative and critical comments and accusations about weakness, laziness etc. We should continue to educate ourselves and do better as we become better informed about mental health issues.
Let’s stop the shame and stigma, while promoting empathy, support and seeking for professional treatment when needed. Please sign up to support the #unashamed campaign of the Asido Foundation via www.asidofoundation.com/unashamed. Together, lets combat the stigma associated with mental ill-health. Then invite others too, to also sign the pledge.
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 19th August 2021