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When Being the GOAT Isn't Good Enough

The stands are nearly empty, the applause is scattered, it’s almost eerie to watch. The largest athletic competition in the world, and there are no cheering crowds, none of the excited energy, there’s something that just feels surreal. It’s a scene set on a world stage that (as far as I’m aware of) is completely unprecedented. I’ve worked with current and past Olympians as well as other professional athletes; and with this, have been granted a unique glimpse into the mental and emotional experiences of some of these athletes. It’s easy to think of public figures as superhuman, but it’s important for us to realize that they are not immune to the challenges/struggles that can become debilitating for any of us.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the pandemic has taken a toll on the majority of people, in one way or another. With so many people struggling I would like to think that this would at least increase understanding and compassion for people struggling with any kind of mental health issues, and I think largely it has; but this last week has been a demonstration that we still have a long way to go.

Initially I was heartened by the outpouring of support Simone Biles received after making her first withdrawal from competition, and for the most part continue to be as the games roll on. However, there have been a few stinging comments of criticism that truly upset and angered me.

One particular criticism that caught my eye was a tirade made by a political activist/radio talk show host, calling her “weak” and a “sociopath” among a string of other insults. First of all, labeling someone a ‘sociopath’ because she withdraws from a competition, clearly shows a lack of basic and fundamental understanding of mental health conditions/diagnoses.

The next was from another current Olympian who made the statement “ better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments…” shortly after making the comment, this athlete had an emotional outburst during a match, and subsequently withdrew from a competition himself, however withdrew citing a shoulder injury, which wasn’t met with the same backlash.

Comments like these illustrate to me that mental health conditions are somehow still being treated as less important, less real, or less debilitating than physical injuries/illness. They also show how much more work needs to be done in helping with compassion and understanding of mental health conditions, and reducing the stigmas that are still present.

Simone Biles had disclosed publicly in the past she was diagnosed and treated for ADHD, but the truth is, we have no idea what else she may be going through. Especially bearing in mind she had come forward as a victim of sexual assault by Larry Nassar, it wouldn’t be unusual for anyone who had experienced that kind of trauma to have other mental/emotional issues. It’s not my job/place to speculate other mental health issues she may be experiencing, and I’m not saying she has other mental health conditions, my point is, as bystanders, we have absolutely no clue what she is personally experiencing. She has consistently shown up to equally high pressure situations and performed well enough to be recognized as ‘The Greatest Of All Time,’ so if for whatever reason, whatever she’s experiencing she’s at a place that she feels her mental/emotional state is interfering with her ability to function, it’s not our place to judge that.

A key point I try to make sure patients understand if we’re starting treatment for depression or anxiety, for example, is that the aim of medication, therapy, etc. is not to take away the range of normal human emotion. If something really stressful is happening (there’s a big job interview, big performance, test, etc.) it’s going to be normal or expected that there will be some amount of anxiety or stress. If something really sad happens (a breakup, loss of someone close to you) it’s going to be normal and expected to feel sad. The aim or goal of treatment should be that these things no longer interfere with a person’s quality of life or ability to function. There is a huge difference between someone feeling worried, stressed, ‘down,’ or sad, and a diagnosable anxiety/depressive disorder.

As the most decorated American gymnast, she has demonstrated time and time again she can perform under pressure. Some of these comments make it sound like she showed up for her first big event and quit because she couldn’t handle it, which clearly isn’t the case.

If anything, I hope that incidents like this can help bring awareness, understanding, and compassion for people struggling with any kind of mental health issue, and help further the conversation that these issues can be just as debilitating as physical injuries, the only difference is they are not visible in the same way. One of the biggest challenges in treating mental health conditions (and a factor that can worsen these conditions) is an individual feeling that setting boundaries, taking the time to address the issues, or seeking treatment will be seen as selfish, weak, or will be looked down on or judged.

The only one who knows our internal experience and has to live with it is ourselves. I’m hoping that the overall perception of mental health will continue to move in the right direction and that some of these fears can stop (in many cases) being a reality. Again, we never truly know what another person is experiencing or going through, so let’s treat each other with the same compassion and kindness that we would want.

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