Mental health has been at the forefront of discussions around the world for a while now, particularly because, according to the World Health Organisation, mental health conditions are on the rise, with possible contributing factors being the increasing use of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent times, online interaction has been the preferred method of communication, leaving people paying more attention to the virtual world of social media, at the detriment of being present in the real world. People are nowadays constantly seeking stimulation, unable to be “in the moment” and agonizing over their social media presence, in an effort to maintain a picture-perfect life online, overlooking pillars of good mental health such as mindfulness and real connection with other human beings. Add to that the global pandemic which has led to even more social isolation and pushed people to immerse themselves even more in the world of social media, it is no wonder that in 2020 global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by an immense 25%.
Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are not as easily noticeable as physical injuries, but can be as limiting and frustrating, as they make it difficult for people to go about their everyday lives. This is especially true for athletes, who are constantly in the public eye and whose career is by nature competitive: since athletes are perceived as modern-day heroes bravely pushing past obstacles, they are expected not to let anything get in the way of their pursuit of victory. For this reason, too often mental health issues in athletes are ignored, with generations of athletes “toughing it out” and stifling their feelings in the name of fame and glory. In the words of soccer player Leeann Passaro, “the stigma is almost increased even further in our sports world because of the idea that weakness is something that you never show, weakness is not a part of being that athlete, of being elite, of being the best”. Indeed, in the eyes of many sports fans professional athletes are idols, but, in the midst of it all, we must remember one thing: athletes are humans.
Up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental health issues which may manifest as stress, anxiety, burnout, depression or eating disorders. Back in 2018, Olympian Michael Phelps opened up at a mental health conference in Chicago highlighting his battle against anxiety and depression. In May 2021, in an unprecedented move, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to protect her mental health adding that “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life […] if that’s true, then it was all worth it”. More recently, gymnast Simone Biles sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics acknowledging the tremendous pressure she had been facing as the “head star of the Olympics” and that she needed to focus on her mental health. Simone Biles stated that she was inspired by Osaka’s recent action, and encouraged people who are struggling to put their own needs first.
Of course, such actions brought about both positive and negative comments, but the more famous people talk about their mental health publicly, the more it will be accepted that this is a real problem. The fact that such high caliber athletes have shared their struggle with the world has sparked a global discussion which is changing the narrative about mental health in sports, increasing awareness on the mental health risks faced by professional athletes: pressure to win, expectations for perfection, constant improvement and uncertain short career spans to name a few. They are also encouraging people to be aware of the connection between mental health and peak performance, and more importantly to talk about mental health and be transparent about it. In the words of Phelps himself “it’s OK not to be OK”.