Starting the conversation on mental health
Mental Health Awareness Month is observed in May to raise awareness on mental illnesses and related risks. It is also marked to highlight the importance of mental wellness, fight stigma, and provide support to people with mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses are common in elite sports due to multiple factors, including the pressure to win, unsustainable expectations for perfection, short career spans, and constant exposure to the public eye. Studies suggest that 35% of elite athletes are likely to experience a mental disorder at some point in their careers.
Recently, many athletes have started to publicly speak about their mental health struggles. Some have gone as far as announcing temporary breaks from their sports, in order to focus on their mental health.
Having athletes at the top of their game discuss their struggles has shifted narratives on mental health within elite sports. They have helped break the stigma around mental health and raise awareness on these issues. Their vulnerability has set examples for people to learn and reflect on their own mental health.
Here are six athletes who have discussed their mental health struggles and prioritised their mental health over their careers.
Constance Lien is a former competitive swimmer and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) champion from Singapore. Lien made the switch to BJJ after years of training in competitive swimming, and it was a challenging decision to make. Lein noted that, as a swimmer, she struggled with self-esteem and self-worth, which then carried forward to her BJJ career. Nevertheless, she became a world champion after winning the women’s blue belt featherweight at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships in 2019.
The pressure that came with winning the championship weighed her down, leading her to perform poorly in the consequent competitions. These experiences helped Lien realise the importance of mental health, which she now strongly advocates for. She has been working on her own campaign, Leading Hearts, to build a safe space for athletes to share their vulnerabilities and fears. Lien hopes she can help sport federations and institutions to prioritise the emotional and mental wellbeing of athletes.
Simone Biles, arguably one of the world’s greatest gymnasts, made a bold statement at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics when she withdrew from the gymnastics women’s team final on account of her mental health. Given her exceptional record of seven Olympic medals, it came as a shock to many. The baggage of these seven medals as well as her existent mental issues took a toll on her mental health, which compelled her to withdraw from all further competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.
This was a big step forward in advancing the global discussions on mental health in sports, amplified due to the spotlight on the Olympics. She was lauded by fellow Olympians for prioritising her health. Since the Olympics, Biles has been taking it easy, taking trips with friends, going to international events and talk shows. She has been using these public platforms to raise awareness on mental wellness and her personal experiences.
Ben Stokes, an all-rounder cricket player in the England’s men’s team, announced an indefinite break from all forms of cricket in August 2021. Given his remarkable game, many saw this as a setback for team England, as his announcement came in right before the test series with India. However, Stokes felt it was important to opt out and give himself some space.
In addition to the relentless demands and performance pressures, the COVID-19 safety protocols, which required players to stay in restrictive bio-bubbles, was a factor that contributed to Stokes’ decision to take a break. After coming back to cricket from his break after four months, Stokes talked about how it helped him come out stronger as well as gain empathy towards other players who might experience the same problems.
In 2021, Former No. 1 tennis player Naomi Osaka stated that she would not attend any press conferences at the French Open, citing mental health issues. Faced with a fine and possible expulsion from the tournament, she then announced that she would withdraw from the tournament, and subsequently also withdrew from Wimbledon that year. Osaka’s decision to expose her vulnerabilities in the public eye while at the top of her game pushed the conversation on mental health forward. She confessed that she had been suffering from depression after winning the US Open in 2018.
Osaka shared her struggles on social media platforms, which helped her form a network of support online with many fellow athletes, celebrities, as well as fans who have gone through mental illnesses.
Abhinav Bindra, a sport shooter, was India’s first athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics in 2008. Bindra recently shared how dealing with success was the most overwhelming part of his sporting career. After years of training with the sole goal of winning a gold medal at the Olympics, Bindra felt that winning brought upon a void and made him feel directionless. The stress of not knowing what to do next almost made him consider quitting shooting.
Bindra has been actively working towards bettering the mental wellbeing of athletes through his involvement in International Olympic Committee’s Mental Health Working Group as well as his own foundation - the Abhinav Bindra Foundation. Given the multiple suicides among the community of Indian shooters, Bindra took it up with National Rifle Association of India to put in efforts in supporting the mental health of shooters in India.
Robbi Kempson is a former Springbok rugby player from South Africa, who has had an illustrious career spanning across various countries for 11 years. Kempson struggled with depression after undergoing a nerve surgery in 2002. Kempson was advised to see a psychologist, since the surgery could have impacted his mobility, but he declined. Later, bouts of depression started kicking in.
Kempson met a psychiatrist and got on medication, but kept his ailment to himself, not even wanting to share his difficulties with his mother. However, after years of battling with his issues, Kempson has become an advocate for mental wellbeing in athletes. He has often shared how the stigma and expectations around elite sports make the process of recovering from mental illnesses tougher and more complicated. Kempson has been vocal about his mental health struggle on various public platforms, as he wants to help the athletes feel better as well as break the stigma around mental health in sports.
Elite sports can burden athletes with tremendous stress, performance pressure and public scrutiny, which can take a toll on their mental health. With the rise in cases of mental illnesses among athletes, conversation around mental health and wellness is gaining relevance within the sporting industry.
Forming a network of support, embracing vulnerability and prioritising mental recovery are some of the points highlighted by the mental health movement within sports. This also marks a significant change in the global narrative on mental health in sports, which has been driven by renowned athletes who have opened-up about their mental health struggles as well as some organised efforts within the sporting industry