Athletes and Mental Health: Speaking Out in a Competitive Environment

Carey Price. Jonathan Drouin. Simone Biles. Naomi Osaka. What do these athletes have in common? They have spoken about their mental health struggles to the public in recent years. Price went on hiatus two years ago to enroll in the National Hockey League Players’ Association assistance program that supports hockey players and their families struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems. That same year, Drouin took a break from professional hockey for several months due to anxiety and insomnia. Gymnast Simone Biles removed herself from the women’s team finals at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health. Tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021 after expressing her concern for her personal struggles.

As spectators, we often put professional athletes on a pedestal. They are faster, quicker, stronger, and seem invincible in action. They can perform feats that we cannot imagine ourselves doing. It can seem like nothing can bring them down. But is their world quite as we imagine it: full of glory, riches, fame, and happiness? The world of athletics can be extremely demanding, when you consider competitions, traveling for events, constant physical and mental training, and being driven to be the best in your field. All of this can create an environment that is highly competitive and draining. It can also be extremely isolating when the goal is to be better than any other competitors. This can have a significant impact on athletes’ mental health.

Recent studies enlighten us on the struggles some athletes face. Research from the University of Toronto shows that elite athletes experience mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders much more frequently than people realize. Zoe Poucher, a graduate student in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, conducted a study that found that “41.4 per cent of Canadian national team athletes – those training for Tokyo 2020 – met the cut-off criteria as proposed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) for depression, anxiety and/or an eating disorder.” This demonstrates that they struggle with mental health issues just like the rest of us, possibly in even greater numbers, even if they have access to fame and riches.

What does it mean when athletes admit to experiencing difficult times, having to take time off work to take care of their mental health? How does that relate to us? It opens the floor to an important discussion; that no matter who you are, addressing and taking care of your mental health is important. The fact that some professional athletes have spoken out about their personal struggles helps to destigmatize and normalize having conversations about mental health. Since professional athletes have a big platform, the message gets across to millions of people. Perhaps by seeing their role model speak about their struggles, someone will be inspired to seek the help they need. We cannot underestimate the impact that one person can have.

–Gabrielle Lesage
From Share&Care Summer 2023
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