The Mental Health Challenge of Olympians

With the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games kicking off last week and Bell Let’s Talk Day just passing, it inspired me to reflect on the mental health challenges that so many high performance athletes face, and what we can learn from them.

Just like business leaders, managers, and people leaders, who are being looked to for wisdom, guidance, and inspiration to draw from, it can be intimidating and overwhelming at times to “have it all together”.

According to the Life Works mental health index report, currently 1 in 3 workers have a high mental health risk which is nearly triple what it was pre-pandemic, with managers and senior leaders having particularly high strain.

On a positive note, 98% of CEO’s reported that employee mental health and wellbeing will be a priority even after the pandemic is over, and 53% of employers are planning an increase in mental health support in the next 12 months.

Whether you are an Olympian, Paralympian, business leader, manager, or on the front lines, we all have our own mental health journey to navigate.

My Experience

Ever since I started keynote speaking and delivering talks on The Hero Mindset, I have been very open about my mental health journey.

In short, two major events in my life that led me down a path to become a mental health advocate. First, when my dad took his own life in 2007, and second when I went through post-Olympic depression after Sochi, in 2014.

I often wrote about this in my blog  in articles such as how the post-Olympic Crash is more real than you think, how these three words saved me from suicide, and what to do when nothing is going right.

In my book, Still Standing, When You Have Every Reason to Give Up, Keep Going, I go even further into the nitty gritty detail about what it’s like to be in serious depression and how to pull yourself out of it.

(ps. Download your FREE copy here)

What’s been interesting from 2007, to 2014, and to 2022 is how the conversation has changed.

In Canada, Clara Hughes helped really change the conversation becoming the spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk’s mental health campaign, and in the past few years alone, more Olympic athletes are bringing the conversation to the forefront.

Today’s Conversation

I finally got to watch the documentary The Weight of Gold, and it was incredible. Michael Phelps helped direct and narrate the documentary, and I can tell you from experience that it felt like he was speaking to me as I went through my post-Olympic challenges in 2014.

If you would like a very raw, real, insight to what the mental health struggles are like for the world’s best, you have to check it out.

(Ps. In Canada, go to fmoviesgo.to to watch the HBO special. Just close the pop-up ads, and it works. That’s how I did it.)

Lately, you likely have heard about Simone Biles pulling out of the competition at the Tokyo Games, Naiomi Osaka quitting the French Open, and recently UK’s, Billy Morgan has spoken up about his struggles he hid for so many years.

In an interview with Today, the host Hoda, asked Simone “Are you carrying it, or are you dealing with it?”, and I think we can all take a moment and self-reflect on that comment.

Are you carrying it, or are you dealing with it?

Billy Morgan said, “I’ve probably only realised after retiring from competing how I was dealing with my mental health, trying to distract myself rather than talk about it”.

Olympian or not, we need to talk about our mental health now, more than ever.

Olympian or not, we need to talk about our mental health now, more than ever. Click To Tweet

Phelps goes on to say, “I don’t know why that one day I decided to just open up. But since that day it’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life and it’s something I’m very thankful for”.

“I know it’s scary to start your mental health journey, but it’s worth it, and you will be a better version of yourself.”, said Biles.

Where You Find Relief

Starting your mental health journey can be scary, but the good news is that when you do, things can actually get better real fast.

During my keynotes and workshops on mental health, resilience, and managing change, I love to draw visual models to help illustrate key points. One day, during a session on how to manage stress and fight back against anxiety, I came up with this model below to help illustrate the what will happen when you do speak up.

What I have found through my experience with mental health and through speaking with others, is that the weight you are carrying is in direct proportion to how much lighter you will feel once you speak up.

That goes back to the question of “Are you carrying it, or are you dealing with it?”.

Olympian, Gracie Gray, reminds us in this video that “There is an Olympic medal for so many sports, but there is not an Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest.”

When you speak up, everything starts to get easier.

When you speak up, everything starts to get easier. Click To Tweet

The Research

Just as Life Works has brought to light how much managers and senior leaders have particularly high strain, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology recently released a peer-reviewed study with insights on Olympic athletes.

In December 2019, 186 Canadian summer Olympians who were preparing for the 2020 Games were surveyed, revealing that 19% reported moderate to severe symptoms of general anxiety, and nearly 32% reported symptoms of depression. 

The Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport has also gathered data and assembled a Mental Health Strategy for High Performance Sport in Canada to provide direction in where support needs to go. 

One of the key findings being that their mental health isn’t sufficiently taken into consideration in high performance sport. They just want to be treated like humans, and highlighted the need for more awareness, education, and resources, helping reduce stigma, just like business leaders and managers face today.

In February of 2021, Lululemon released its first Global Wellbeing Index citing a 10-country study and explores the dimensions, drivers, and barriers to wellbeing to also provide guidance towards where the health of our communities are at, whether you are a high performance athlete or not.

When measuring physical, mental, and social dimensions, to no surprise, less than a third (29%) of global respondents indicate strong wellbeing across all three dimensions.

Going Forward

Having gone through the last two years of the pandemic, it’s now fair to say that if you haven’t experienced any mental health challenges yourself, surely you know someone who has.

If the pandemic has brought some bright light, I think that we are now normalizing the conversation around mental health and reducing the stigma around speaking up when you are not feeling well.

As I have more conversations with leaders and managers, one thing that continually shows up is that there is more desire for open conversations to leverage resources internally and retain key employees by providing them the support they need.

At the same time, our sport system is also progressing. As more athletes speak up, it helps show the rest of the world that we are all human and need (and take) days off just like everyone else.

I think as we go through the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, more stories like Hughes, Biles, Phelps, and more will be brought to the surface.

Perhaps not right away, but like the pandemic, we know that not all side effects are shown right away.

I encourage you this year to celebrate and enjoy the Games we have! They are always a bright shining light of excitement and give us something to look forward to providing us hope and inspiration.

That hope and inspiration can come in the form of athletics, or it can also come in the form of mental health.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you succeed:

How to Manage Change Effectively

How to be Patient Managing Change

How to Stay Positive During The Winter

Whenever you are ready here are the 3 best ways I can help you:

  1. Get a FREE copy of my autobiography, Still Standing: When You Have Every Reason to Give Up, Keep Going (here)
  2. Looking for a speaker for your next event? Watch Kevin’s keynote reel on The Hero Mindset (here)
  3. Interested in team building? Come play and and learn more about the Sledge Hockey Experience (here)

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