They had the world’s spotlight shining on them. They had trained for years for this moment. Millions of fans waited to watch them compete and see them hoist a trophy or a gold medal once again. Instead, they used that spotlight to say something few world-famous athletes have ever dared to say out loud: I need to step away from this competition and focus on my mental health.
And by doing so, gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Naomi Osaka, basketball player Kevin Love and a handful of others at the pinnacle of their athletic careers have helped accelerate a trend that mental health experts at the University of Michigan say is long overdue.
By being open about what they were experiencing, and not “toughing it out” or stifling their feelings like generations of athletes have had to do, these icons did more than spare themselves injury or defeat.
Their public choice to seek help for depression, anxiety, overwhelming stress and other concerns could help athletes at all levels have the courage to seek professional help, and a break from competition if they need it.
U-M experts who work with athletes on mental health awareness and care had already started to see the shift toward this growing acceptance, even before the news broke from Wimbledon about Osaka or from the Tokyo Olympics about Biles.
Victor Hong, M.D., directs the psychiatric emergency department at University of Michigan Health, part of Michigan Medicine, and treats students including athletes at the University Health Service. He welcomes the newfound attention to the issue because of Biles and Osaka.
So does Will Heininger, who used to be an elite student athlete himself, playing football forUMs legendary Big Ten team while battling depression. Now, he’s the outreach coordinator for the Eisenberg Family Depression Center, and works with Athletes Connected, a collaborative program of Eisenberg Family Depression Center, U-M Athletics and the U-M School of Social Work.
Athletes Connected offers online resources for athletes anywhere, at any level. These include videos of athletes telling their own stories and sharing coping tips, signs and symptoms to look for regarding mental health, skills and strategies for mental wellness and information on how to find a mental health professional.
“As more athletes speak out, it gives others permission to ask for help and normalizes mental health as part of the conversation,” said Stephanie Salazar, M.P.H., who manages outreach programs for the center including Athletes Connected.
End Sports Stigma On Mental Health
All three U-M experts say the shift has been most striking as athletes from Generation Z have reached elite levels – including Biles and Osaka.
“The generational difference is one of the things that gives me the most hope about the future – for all of society, not just athletes,” said Heininger. “The idea of ‘not knowing about depression or anxiety’ seems so foreign to them; they are consistently surprised, even shocked, to learn that ‘not knowing’ was the norm, very recently, as well as for all of history before that.”
“Athletes Connected has worked hard over the past seven years to break down the stigma of student-athlete help-seeking at U-M, and over that time, I’ve seen a huge shift in the ways that student-athletes talk about and champion the notion of taking care of their mental health as part of their overall wellness,” Salazar said. “Students are now taking the lead.”
The importance of early recognition and effective treatment, and the availability of options including telehealth-based talk therapy and mobile apps for monitoring and managing moods, have all converged in recent years too.