With the news of Simone Biles pulling out of the Olympic finals and choosing her mental health first, we are seeing a movement among elite Black athletes who are taking a public stand to advocate for their own and others’ mental health. There has been a surge of elite athletes who have spoken out and shown the strain of what it is like to be under pressure and to be in the limelight.
I have pulled several excerpts from this article by Char Adams, reporter for NBC BLK, and also interjected my own thoughts below:
Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100-meter race at the Olympic trials in June, was barred from competing at the Tokyo Games after testing positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana. She said she had used marijuana to cope with the recent death of her biological mother, which she said sent her into “a state of emotional panic.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, stepped away from the French Open and Wimbledon this year for the sake of her mental health. Olympic sprinter Noah Lyles, 24, has been a vocal advocate of mental health care, sharing on Twitter that he takes anti-depressants and sees both a sports and a personal therapist. Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Simone Manuel, 24, spoke openly about taking a break after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome this year, as she suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia and loss of appetite.
Such mental health issues aren’t uncommon among Black athletes. But the willingness to speak so openly about the struggles and publicly advocate for better care is fairly new in the professional sports world, experts say.
“Black Athletes are increasingly taking ownership of their personal narrative and making their own choices about sharing that personal narrative,” said LeʼRoy Reese, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “There is now a sense of agency among professional athletes that we have not seen before with regard to their voices.”
Taking necessary mental health breaks and sharing them with the world is becoming the norm in sports, and elite Black athletes are leading the charge.
That urgent focus on mental wellness was recently thrust back into headlines when Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100-meter race at the Olympic trials in June, was barred from competing at the Tokyo Games after testing positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana. She said she had used marijuana to cope with the recent death of her biological mother, which she said sent her into “a state of emotional panic.”
USA Track and Field vowed in a statement to “work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”
In 2018, DeMar DeRozan, who plays for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, candidly tweeted: “This depression get the best of me … ” He quickly became a vocal mental health advocate, revealing his battle with depression and anxiety. His advocacy, and that of other players, led the NBA to require teams to have at least one full-time licensed mental health professional on staff.
According to Athletes for Hope, an organization that pairs athletes with charitable causes, up to 35 percent of professional athletes will face a mental health crisis. However, major sports organizations have been slow to obtain adequate mental health resources for athletes. Team USA established its “athlete services division” in 2019 to bolster its support services, and athletes can now access mental health resources like therapists, counseling groups and helplines.
“There has been a benign neglect too often of professional athletes’ physical and mental well-being,” Reese said. Professional leagues “don’t think about how the stress of performing at such a high level impacts an athlete’s quality of life.”
“Very often nothing prepares you to be a professional athlete. You prepare physically, but young professional athletes have not been prepared for the pressures and expectations that come from being thrust into the spotlight.”
Holdsclaw’s openness serves as an important precedent for female athletes revealing their mental health struggles. The shift comes at a time when women’s athletics are more popular than ever. Athletes like Biles and Serena Williams are hailed as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their sports. Brands and marketers are increasingly investing financially in women’s sports, and global TV and sponsorship revenue for women’s athletics is expected to surpass $1 billion, according to a report from Deloitte.
“There was this myth that women are not as competitive as men, or their sports aren’t as enjoyable. Then you have female athletes like Naomi Osaka, she’s one of the most high-profile athletes,” said Dr. Caroline M. Brackette, a licensed counselor and professor in Mercer University’s College of Health Professions. She noted that depression and anxiety are some of the most common mental health issues among athletes.
“Traditionally women have been more vocal about self care … so I’m not surprised you see, just as in society, more women speaking out about mental health and wellness in sports.”
Brackette said the rise in public mental health advocacy among young Black athletes is a reflection of society at large, where stigma surrounding mental health is slowly diminishing.
“Looking at people like Simone Biles Naomi and all the other athletes who are talking will start a snowball effect,” Saunders said. “The next person will talk about it, then the next person and the next person. And people will go, ‘Well, if the athletes are talking about it, I guess it’s cool for us to start talking about it, too.’
“People will see that it’s not as negative as you’d think. There’s a lot more benefits to being open than we’d like to think.”
Do you know an aspiring athlete or high-performance individual who may be struggling with mental health challenges on and off the field of competition? Help and hope are available to you and your loved one. Call us today for a free consultation.