The Olympic Games are an event many look forward to; watching the unbelievable skills demonstrated during each competition is thrilling and commands much respect for those competing. These extraordinary athletes have dedicated their lives to training their bodies and minds in order to be the best of the best at their sport. Some call them real-life heroes, the role models that represent their countries.
One can only imagine the grueling days of training and resistance against oneself that accompany the fame and glory of success at the Games. Olympic athletes require immense physical strength and even more mental strength and stability to challenge not only their competitors, but themselves. Such an intense career likely makes it extremely difficult for athletes to handle the stress and pressure of needing to succeed, which can lead to mental illness or general lack of mental wellness. About 1 in 5 people are living with mental illness, therefore 1 in 5 Olympians are living with a mental illness as well. But if mental illness is so common, why don’t more of them talk about it? With mental stamina so crucial to this career, why is the conversation about mental health among Olympic athletes so minimal?
The answer may simply be the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The exact opposite of what athletes want is to be viewed as “weak” or “incapable”. Our society often labels those with mental illness this way, viewing the illness before the person and giving it the power. Even for the Olympians that do not live with mental illness but have struggled with remaining mentally strong, they may fear that talking about it will cause their competitors and the public to view them differently, negatively.
Yet, this is the exact time when it is perfect to talk about mental health: if the physically and mentally strongest people on earth struggle with their mental health but are willing to speak up about it, others can know that people do not experience mental health conditions because they are weak and have lack of character. Rather, our circumstances or body chemistry make mental wellness extra challenging, which makes talking about self-care and forms of mental wellness even more important. We may not all be Olympic athletes, but we all experience stress, loss, and demands in life. When Olympians open up about their struggles and discuss ways to combat them, we all benefit by fighting the stigma against mental illness and by learning ways to care for ourselves.
Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern
**Adapted from NAMI National’s Blog “Why Don’t More Olympians Talk About Mental Illness?”