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A Revolution in Mental Healthcare Led by Athletes

Posted on
February 15, 2023

Simone Biles, take all the time you need. The gold medal can wait. The same goes for you, Naomi Osaka, Raven “the Hulk” Saunders, and Noah Lyles.

In recent months, there has been a mental health revolution in sports being led by a generation of elite athletes like Biles, Osaka, Saunders, Lyles, among others. Each of them has taken their mental health into their own hands and spoken openly about their struggles. In May, Osaka, 23, stepped away from the French Open and Wimbledon for the sake of her mental health. Last week, Biles, dubbed the GOAT of women’s gymnastics, withdrew from the team final competition at the Olympics following an unusually mediocre performance on the vault. She also cited mental health reasons for stepping away, noting that her anxiety put her at significant physical risk. If her brain wouldn’t play along with what her body knows how to do, she could be seriously injured.

“You’ve trained for this. You’ll be fine,” Biles told her teammates on the sidelines after making the decision to scratch the finals. And they were. The US women’s gymnastics team finished with silver and Sunisa Lee, 18, won the gold medal in women’s gymnastics all-around.

In hearing the news of Biles last week, her victorious return to the balance beam this week, and reflecting on the other athletes’ decision to put their mental wellbeing first, I was reminded of the Black folklore legend of John Henry. It is his story that inspired the first name of my culturally competent teletherapy company — Henry Health, now Hurdle. Legend says Henry was one of over 800 Black men who helped build the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the 1870s. One winter, the railroad company brought in a steam drill to speed up work. For fear that man would be bested by machine, the workers rallied around John Henry, urging him to prove a man could still beat the steam drill. John Henry agreed to the challenge. He pounded so fast and so hard that he drilled a 14-foot hole into the rock. Legend has it that John Henry beat the steam drill. Then, he died of exhaustion.

"I envision a day when mental sabbaticals are not only celebrated, they are built into the fabric of healthcare and wellness for athletes, celebrities, and everyday people like you and me. "

- Kevin Dedner, MPH

In the story of John Henry, what if instead the legendary steel-driver echoed Biles’ words to his fellow steelworkers when they asked him to press on? What if instead, he told them, “You’ll be fine. I’m going to sit this one out.” How would the moral of that story read? I’d venture to say much like Biles, Osaka, Saunders, and Lyles’ stories. Rather than sacrificing their mental wellbeing for the sake of pressing on or to fulfill the demands of their fans, coaches, and sponsors, they have reclaimed power by choosing to step away.

The stories of these modern-day legends offer hope. Hope that we are evolving our understanding of mental health and its importance in managing our overall well-being. But there is still growth to be had. Athletes, celebrities, and people like Bebe Moore Campbell, founder of July’s National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, are still often met with disbelief, disappointment, or shame when they choose their mental health over a gold medal. Or, in Cambell’s case, when they refuse to let the stigma of mental illness silence their loved one’s pain. Their advocacy — for themselves and for a revolution in mental healthcare — comes at a cost. In athletes’ efforts to take ownership of their bodies and minds, they risk disappointing millions. What’s more, for black athletes, the disappointment can often be expressed in racial slurs and threats, additional intimidation that creates an invisible barrier to their seeking help. In July, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka — Black players on England’s football team — were bombarded with racist abuse on social media after the team lost the UEFA Euro 2020 championship match. The three were among England’s players to participate in a penalty shootout to decide the winner of the match and the tournament. All three missed their shots. After the game ended, the players’ social media accounts were filled with racist comments and messages.

Like John Henry, Black athletes, celebrities, and other People of Color are often required to be heroes of their own story, even as the weight of the world — and their future — rests on their shoulders. And when they opt to take a breather for the sake of their mental health, they are not only met with disappointment and shame, but with reminders of their inequitable place in the world.

I envision a day when the culture around mental health has shifted and it is respected as an integral part of general health. I envision a day when mental sabbaticals are not only celebrated, they are built into the fabric of healthcare and wellness for athletes, celebrities, and everyday people like you and me. And I envision a day when the discussion around racism’s particular impact on the mental and physical health of People of Color is intellectually honest.

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