Mental Health and Olympics

Despite being perceived as active and physically fit, athletes can suffer just as much as anybody from mental health problems. When they are physically injured, they are treated by a team of doctors to ensure a speedy recovery. However, when it is a mental health problem, they probably suffer in silence and isolation. The stigma attached to mental health is predominant in athletes due to the focus on appearing physically and mentally fit. Lionel Messi had openly acknowledged that it would be good for him to go to a psychologist. His honesty had been applauded on social media, ‘Too little thought is given to mental health.’

The Olympics is a fantastic international proving ground for athletes. It has always provided a spectacular display of physical prowess, but the  event’s organizers and participants emphasize mental well-being. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles recently withdrew from the team competition because of a mental health issue. Other notable Olympic athletes, including Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, have spoken about their mental health struggles. Lindsey Vonn, the famous ski racer, has also been open in describing her decade-long battle with the illness.

Scientific research suggests that mental health disorders affect up to 35 percent of elite athletes at some stage of their careers. This can be burnout, substance abuse or eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. The causes can be different, from poor sleep to selection pressures and premature retirement due to injury. According to International Olympic Committee Scientific Director Dr. Richard Budgett, “It is important to approach these problems in athletes, bearing in mind the special situation they are in, and the big life stresses they face.”

As a result, the IOC has sought to initiate several projects that increase athlete mental health and develop ways to help athletes detect and handle mental health concerns.

Research suggests that the lack of spectators in Tokyo might alter the emotional experience for athletes, says psychologist Fabio Richlan. He and a colleague found that soccer players displayed less dynamic behaviour during the pandemic when fans were absent from the stadium. While some athletes draw energy from the crowd, others may find it easier to perform with fewer distractions. Regardless of the limitations around the Tokyo games, psychologists and athletes are doing their best to appreciate the experience and approach their events as they would any competition. Psychologists conduct one-on-one sessions with athletes, group meetings with teams before their competitors, and group mindfulness sessions. To get to grips with mental health, there is a need to continue raising awareness and reducing the subject’s stigma.

 Bartika Dutta

About Author