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Why are Olympic Athletes Criticized for Taking Care of their Mental Health?

The decision that Simone Biles made to withdraw from the U.S. gymnastics team competition undoubtedly got people’s attention. While many were sympathetic, especially fellow athletes, others said she was selfish and let her team down. Others may not say it out loud, but they’re thinking, “Why can’t she just deal with it?? After all, she’s an elite athlete with millions of dollars in endorsements, so shouldn’t she be able to just get on with it?”

The fact is that Simone Biles is by no means the only athlete that has experienced emotional pain. Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis that may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. However, Simone was one of the few willing to speak up and take charge of her destiny, knowing that her decision could hurt her short- and long-term career. It takes a strong person to take that risk realizing their health is not worth sacrificing.

Elite athletes face emotional stress that is almost impossible for the rest of us to appreciate. They have the physical and mental strain, the grueling practice schedule, the guilt over how much their families have sacrificed, and of course, sponsors. Not to mention, they have the anxiety of knowing that millions of people are judging them based on how they perform for a few split seconds in a sport they have been training for most of their lives. The public doesn’t often appreciate what athletes must endure competing at such a high level. No wonder Simone Biles and many others say they feel the “weight of the world” on their shoulders.

And yet, competitors who would get treated immediately for physical injuries very rarely receive that type of support for mental stress. While it would be entirely understandable to withdraw from competition if you broke your arm, most people don’t have the same empathy when someone has emotional problems. Because we can’t see mental illness, there is still a stigma attached, and athletes are expected to move forward despite how they might be suffering. Simone Biles should be commended for deciding to withdraw from competition while she knew that her emotional state could have led to severe physical injuries.

Fortunately, other athletes have been speaking out as well. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, USC Volleyball player Victoria Garrick and NBA player Kevin Love are just a few inspiring others to seek help. And, of course, mental illness does not just affect athletes. It can affect anyone at any time, and it can be paralyzing for many that are unsure how to get help. Over 46.6 million people within the U.S. face the reality of managing a mental illness every day. Many of these people don’t seek treatment because of the stigma involved and because there is also a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas. Over 60% of counties within the U.S. don’t have one practicing psychiatrist. One of the few positives that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise in mental telehealth services which has enabled people to get virtual treatment no matter where they’re located. Telehealth adoption in psychiatry was 80% before the pandemic and jumped to 96% in 2020. This rise has not only helped people that would not otherwise have had access, but studies show that 62% of consumers would prefer a virtual visit for their regular mental health visits, even if they have the option to visit a doctor’s office in person.

So, what does this all mean, and how is Simone Biles's situation relevant to the average American? While athletes often suffer from depression, anxiety, or eating disorders because of the extreme demands of competition, it doesn’t mean that other people are immune to mental illness. Unfortunately, this is a national crisis, and we must talk about it and work on solutions. We need to treat mental illness with the same compassion as we would physical illness. We need to remove barriers for people that need help, and we need sustainable long-term solutions. Because an Olympic athlete put the issue front and center, perhaps this will finally remove some of the remaining stigma not only for athletes but for all people who are suffering.

If you need help, don’t wait.

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