Professional athletes are known for their resilience and grit. And as the Olympics roll around every two years, the pressure on athletes to rise above any adversity grows exponentially. The eyes of the world are on them, and they are expected to perform at the highest levels of athleticism imaginable. With such pressure comes an immense propensity for mental health struggles. This reality has historically been taboo in the sports world–athletes are people who are supposed to be able to push through pain and fear better than most. But what happens when “pushing through” is no longer a viable option? What happens when the weight of the world is too much for your shoulders...or your mind?
Today, Simone Biles embodied the importance of self advocacy when she decided to pull out of the women’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics. After a performance well below Biles’ normal world champion level of excellence in gymnastics, Biles realized her mental health was in such disarray that she was afraid she was going to injure herself if she continued to compete. She told reporters that while she felt guilty about leaving the competition and potentially letting her team down, she knew she had to put herself first. Biles says it felt like she had “the weight of the world” on her shoulders, and that fighting internal demons while also trying to perform on the world stage had sucked the joy out of the sport for her.
So instead of staying quiet, she told the truth. When Biles was honest about needing time off to rest–even if just for a day–she showed that speaking up for yourself when battling with mental health is necessary for self-love and care. At a press conference after her announcement, she encouraged people “to put mental health first," explaining that life can't be all about being the best. Her teammates stood firmly behind her decision, showing their support and solidarity with Biles, who’s often referred to as the Greatest of All Time (emoji and all).
Charlie Health’s Clinical Director, NaKeya Ashe, LCSW, explains that being firm and honest in communicating about what you need when you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health struggles makes it easier to create a more authentic support network: “It takes strength to admit you need help—the more open you are about what you need, the more we can help you process your challenges and develop coping skills that will allow for you to heal.”
In recent years, athletes like Michael Phelps, Aly Raisman, and Serena Williams have also opened up about living with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse even in the wake of their incredible athletic achievements. In sharing publicly about their mental health, these athletes have also noted how difficult and intimidating it is to talk openly because of the stigma that accompanies mental health struggles. As Aly Raisman put it: “I’ve learned that the best thing to do is just to really ask for help and to communicate with people because then people can help me.” At the same time, advocating for yourself in the form of asking for help, opening up to people you trust, and implementing boundaries isn’t always easy.
"Athletes, whether college level or elite, typically struggle in silence if they are experiencing mental health issues," said Charlie Health's Director of Clinical Operations, Ted Faneuff, LCSW. "A recent article suggested that only 10% of college athletes actually seek help for their struggles. Common reasons athletes don't seek treatment center around stigma and a widely accepted attitude of needing to be 'mentally tough'. Athletes are often conditioned to be mentally strong in order to push past physical pain barriers. That same thinking can lead them to feel shame when they can't 'get it together' surrounding mental health issues. Rather than hold them to unrealistic expectations, we should applaud those athletes that model the importance of self care and who prioritize their mental health."
But how do you know when it’s time to take the leap and ask for help? What are the signs for when a boundary should be created with a friend, loved one, coworker, fellow student, teacher, or boss?
- Hopelessness: This is more than a feeling of sadness. Hopelessness is feeling low enough that coping or getting through challenges seems unimaginable.
- Loss of interest in activities: When someone begins to no longer engage in activities they used to love and enjoy doing, this may be a sign that support is needed. Sudden and unexpected changes in one’s interest in activities signal that there is an underlying cause for something more going on that requires additional support.
- Conflicts in relationships or self-isolation: Changes in relationships or the desire to self-isolate can be a sign of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. It’s important to reach out for mental health support when social interactions that once were enjoyable become overwhelming or induce panic.
Once you’ve decided it’s time to stick up for yourself in order to maintain a healthy mental state–be it in recovery from substance abuse, an eating disorder, or just maintaining calmness throughout the day–how do you ask for what you need?
According to Charlie Health’s clinical team, here are some ways to approach self-advocacy.
- Be open in communicating what you need to your support systems
- Know what you need, but allow others to support you in developing a plan
- Set healthy boundaries in your everyday life and with your friends or loved ones
- Feel confident in your decisions and stick to them
- Understand your worth and rights, feel comfortable asking clarifying questions
Ultimately, as we here at Charlie Health believe, the only way out is through. While mental health struggles can be scary, isolating, and difficult to navigate, they don't have to be navigated alone. The more people you invite into your circle who you can trust, communicate with honestly, and feel safe with...the better! Learning how to voice your needs can make the difference between struggling alone and developing a support system that will champion and join you on your healing journey. If we can learn anything from Simone Biles’ bravery, it’s this: being honest with both yourself and others requires immense but necessary courage that will only benefit you in the long term.
“I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That's why I decided to take a step back.”