Mental Health & The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

First ‘Mental Health & Basketball.’ Then ‘Mental Health in Tennis.’ Hopefully, mental health will soon have the global stage.

In just one week, we will finally get to see the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games (more on how here). What we’re seeing from athletes right now, however, is what I want to discuss this week.

Since my last post, TIME published an op-ed from Naomi Osaka, the tennis player representing Japan in the upcoming 2020 summer Olympics who just a few months ago withdrew herself from the French Open because she felt that participating in post-match conferences would take a negative toll on her mental health. In the piece for TIME, Osaka shared what she’s learned since making that controversial decision, notably comparing the tennis profession to the traditional workplace as I did when that news broke.

But Osaka isn’t the only athlete who has been talking openly about their mental health recently. Right around the same time, swimmer Simone Manuel did not qualify during the U.S. Olympic 100-meter freestyle swimming finals, and explained to reporters that part of the reason she thinks she didn’t qualify is because of an overtraining syndrome that impacted both her mind and body earlier this year – and got worse because of the pandemic and racial unrest in America. She said, “Being a Black person in America played a part in it. This past year for the Black community has been brutal. I can’t say that that wasn’t something that I saw, it’s not something that I could ignore. and it was just another factor that can influence you, mentally in a draining way.” (With July being Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, my next post will expand on this statement even more.)

Soon after, IndyStar ran a story on track star Lynna Irby’s struggle with anxiety. Her Florida therapist really couldn’t have said it any better: “Lighter head, lighter feet.”

And not long after that, Lizette Salas said during the KPMG Women's PGA Championship that she was in a “deep hole (last year)” and, “I wanted to talk about this in the beginning of the year, but I wasn't ready. I wanted to share this, my story and my process, when I was confident. I guess now is the time to talk about it … ”

Even more recently, a number of Olympic athletes talked about the importance of mental health during an interview with USA Today, and still more with the New York Times

I could go on and on with examples of athlete mental health in the media. I could also go on an on about the science in this area, but for now, I'll just share this: “… research demonstrates that this population is vulnerable to a range of mental health problems (including substance misuse), which may be related to both sporting factors (e.g. injury, overtraining and burnout) and non-sporting factors.”

THAT’S COOL AND ALL, BUT SO WHAT?

If in reading this your initial reaction is something like “Awesome, these examples will really help address stigma and move the needle on mental health!” you’re partly right. There’s just a lot more to it than that alone.

In addition to bringing mental health forward in everyday conversations – which does, indeed, help address the social side of stigma that comes with acknowledging and addressing it – some of our world’s most physically strong individuals coming forward and talking about how mental health impacts their athletic performance helps break down the mental siloes the fragment care, that put mental health and physical health in separate and distinct buckets. It’s perfect validation of what we’ve been screaming from the rooftops for so long now: Mental health is health. You can’t perform well – or nearly as well as you optimally could – physically if you are suffering mentally. Period. Your mind impacts your body and vice versa.

But perhaps most importantly, the third thing this recent show of athletic honesty does is signal the ongoing push for a movement for mental health. It adds momentum to a movement that embraces the social side of mental health while simultaneously advocating for structural changes – breaking down care and financing silos so that mental health is more seamlessly integrated to where people need it. And hopefully, that movement will gain even more momentum during the games, and ideally continue on well after it.

WHO NEEDS TO NEXT SIEZE THIS MOMENT?

Remember when I wrote about Wilt Chamberlain’s status-quo-challenging free-throwing shooting technique? And used that as a metaphor for creating a social movement for mental health? Well, there’s another athlete whose story I hope will give you a sense of where we are in this burgeoning movement, and by the same token, where we go next.

That story is the story of Steve Prefontaine, a long-distance runner who participated in the 1972 summer Olympics in Germany.

Prefontaine, as Runner’s World puts it, “was a stubborn front runner.” Rather than, as many runners have done and still do to this day, run slower at the outset of the race to reserve energy and finish strong at the end, Prefontaine preferred to give every race his all from the outset. His “hard-charging, run-from-the-front approach to racing defied conventional wisdom,” but broke records and earned him a Sports Illustrated cover at just 19 years old.

Right now, in our race for a world that puts mental health and physical health on the same pedestal, Naomi Osaka, Simone Manuel, Lynna Irby, Lizette Salas and the many others that have been encouraged to come out to talk about their mental health are our Steve Prefontaines. They are leading a stigma- and silo-shattering charge that has gained impressive momentum in only a few weeks, and therefore will soon need others to step up and “relieve” them. It’s too hard to be a front runner for long periods of time, and Naomi may already be feeling that wear, admitting in her piece for TIME, “I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers.”

There couldn’t be a better time for other athletes to step up and share their stories, no matter where they are, who they compete for, nor in what sport. The world is watching – not just for shows of physical strength, but of mental strength, too.

Now the question becomes – what do we do with this moment? How can we step up, lead and take action?