Destigmatizing Mental Health In Sports Is The Need Of The Hour

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Destigmatizing Mental Health In Sports Is The Need Of The Hour

Simone Biles' decision of dropping out of the finals during the Tokyo Olympics brought to notice the much-ignored issue of mental health amongst athletes.

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In May this year, when tennis star Naomi Osaka decided to withdraw from the French Open after she skipped press conferences on mental health grounds, it triggered a debate about the mental health of athletes. And the dissussion has continued well into the Tokyo Olympics. There is no denying the fact sports benefits mental health. However, the same cannot be the case for professional athletes who dedicate their lives to it. Unfortunately, mental health is a stigma that is considered to be a sign of weakness in our society. This is in contrast to everything that the athletes want to portray on theworld stage.

In any sport, there is a team of specialised medical practitioners available for athletes to tend to their physical injuries. However, no such support is avilable if the athlete faces a mental health issue. Mental health issues In sport are often overlooked and might trigger feelings of loneliness and abandonment in them. Many people perceive that health issues, be it physical or mental, are rare among athletes since they are required to be physically fit.

Due to constant criticism and the media limelight that national and international level athletes get, they prefer keeping their personal and emotional lives private. Ordinary people follow top athletes as their role models, potentially painting a picture that they are immune to such problems. On the other hand, athletes do not seek support, fearing widespread criticism or the fear of failing or being dropped out of the squad. Mental health problems are a stigma in society, and the athletes face heightened tension for fear of losing their status as role models.

Recent Events That Highlighted The Importance of Mental Health

The American Psychiatric Society recognised the dangers of assuming that athletes are mentally healthy. They have recognised that problems about mental health are as common amongst athletes as they are amongst ordinary people. The issue, in any part of the population, should not be considered a taboo subject to speak about. If athletes reach out for professional help, their mental health is more likely to improve.

At the Olympics, the debate about mental health was brought to the podium when gymnast Simone Biles decided to remove herself from the women's team final on July 27. This was after she missed an attempt on the two-and-half twisting vault. Biles is a four-time Olympic medallist from the United States of America (USA) and is popularly referred to as "the greatest". She said, "After the performance, I just did not want to go on". A day prior to this, she had captioned a post on Instagram where she detailed about how sometimes she felt that the weight of the world was on her shoulders. The athlete was expected to bring home a gold for the USA. However, after her announcement, she said that she was choosinng mental health over a medal.

Just 24 hours later, tennis Superstar Naomi Osaka crashed out of the game after losing 6-1, 6-4 to opponent Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic. Osaka is World No 2 in the sport and had lit the Olympic cauldron this time. She said in a statement, "I definitely feel that there was a lot of pressure this time around." In June, she had dropped out of the Wimbledon. In an essay for the Times Magazine, Osaka had written, "It is ok not to be ok, and it is ok to not talk about it...I communicated...that I wanted to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health...I stand by that. Athletes are humans." After Naomi's exit from the Olympics, she wrote, "I feel that my attitude wasn't that great because I don't really know how to cope with that pressure, so that's the best that I could have done in this situation."

Both Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles became mental health ambassadors by putting it on the centre stage of a sporting event that hosted more than 11,000 athletes. The need of the hour is normalising athletes having mental health issues. Moreover, we need to analyse the reason why top-grade athletes are so prone to such problems. The possible reason is that the stress and anxiety of facing unprecedented pressure on a regular basis might leave them vulnerable to experiencing such feelings. In some cases, 'untreated' head injuries can also leave athletes on the verge of developing stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other reasons for developing stress and anxiety amongst athletes can be physical injuries, bad performances, conflicts with teammates and coaches, over-training, and the dreaded retirement. A report by 'Athletes For Hope' mentions that 35 per cent of elite athletes face a mental health crisis. Such crisis can manifest as eating disorders, depression, burnout, stress and anxiety. Experts also believe that college athlete depression is an 'epidemic' of sorts, apart from international athletes. A study in the USA mentioned that roughly one-third of athletes are suffering from sleeping disorders. A quarter is feeling some sense of loss. About 10 per cent of them are feeling depressed to the point that makes day-to-day functioning difficult.

Other Athletes Who Have Addressed The Issue

The pandemic and subsequent enforcements of the lockdown had already diverted the global attention on the hush-hush topic of mental health. Several athletes like PV Sindhu, Virat Kohli, Harmanpreet Kaur and Sunil Chettri amongst many others have addressed mental health issues.

Athletes should not feel compelled to mask the problem, instead be encouraged to address them. The notion of an athlete being 'weak' for looking out for their mental health needs to be addressed from the media perspective and the athlete's perspective. There is immense pressure on the athletes to perform well in their game, for the sake of monetary benefits, endorsements and the name of their country and the family. Playing a sport does not make an athlete immune to the everyday problems of a human being.

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