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LESSON: You’re More Than a Game

  JULY 2021 

What’s the true price of becoming a G.O.A.T. (Greatest of all Time)? Let’s explore that from the mental health perspective. Take care of your mental health. I’ve heard that phrase more in the last 15 months than I have heard it in the last 15 years in private practice as a Clinical Psychologist. Many times when I

hear it I cringe and think, “They don’t know how to do that.” The stigma associated with mental health and mental illness has unfortunately banned it from the central space it should occupy in our understanding of human well-being and hidden it primarily in the quiet four walls of a mental health professional’s office or in the silent struggle in the mind of one trying to manage illness alone. I can’t even begin to explain the flood of emotions that followed hearing of Simone Biles withdrawing from Olympic competition to take care of her mental health. As my heart ached, head pounded, and blood boiled I thought, “Oh no. Not again. Mental health has entered the conversation at a time of crisis.” The encouraging statement ‘take care of your mental health’ quickly dissipates into a desperate cry to ‘protect your mental health before you break!’ The G.O.A.T.’s: Simone Biles, Simone Manual, Naomi Osaka, Sha’Carri Richardson, all at the top of their game yet sidelined by issues with mental health. How is this happening one might ask?

*Dr. Massey slides in a soap box*

Problem 1: Society does not teach EVERYONE about the importance of mental health, the potentially debilitating effects of mental illness, or the skills necessary to be mentally healthy. Our society lacks a structured way that mental health is introduced and explained to the every day citizen. I am consistently appalled that mental health is not taught in schools at the primary levels. Most young people are introduced to mental health and mental illness at the time of crisis, often their own. Societies rush to send in a “team of mental health professionals” after a
tragedy to assist young people who don’t yet know how to effectively express their troubled thoughts or regulate their overwhelming emotions. When there are school shootings or other mass tragedies, one of the first questions raised is about mental health. Yes, mental illness is often a factor in such situations, but it’s not the only or the primary way we should understand mental illness. Know that 1 in 4 individuals is diagnosed with a mental illness. Most of those individuals can function well and live peacefully right beside you when their illness is treated
appropriately. Additionally, the absence of a diagnosable condition does not mean that mental health is not relevant for every individual. We must highlight the difference between mental health and mental illness remembering that there is no health without mental health. More efforts must be dedicated to teaching strategies to promote mental health as much as we do physical health.

Problem 2: Success and high achievement are viewed as indicators of being mentally healthy by default. In the case of premier, world class athletes, their extraordinary physical abilities produce entertaining excellence and unbridled success. Such success must mean they are mentally healthy, right? I beg to differ. Mental health is achieved through intentional action to that end. Yet, many athletes are surrounded by coaches, doctors, trainers, biofeedback experts and the like, all present to ensure these athletes can reach and maintain peak physical performance. I wonder how many clinical psychologists are on staff as team doctors for such athletes? Most likely none. Attention is focused on everything EXCEPT the main thing that keeps them going, their mind. Where’s the value on mental health? There is likely no paid professional to ensure that mental health is at its peak and that the person doing the performing feels good and thinks clear.
Instead, the human athlete is turned into a high performing machine, only as good as their most recent amazing feat. When questioned about mental health in a recent interview, one of the most decorated Olympians and champion of mental health, Michael Phelps, commented, “We [Olympic athletes] need someone to talk to. Someone who let’s us be vulnerable, who let’s us just be us.” That’s our cue clinical psychologists. Sports world, that’s the prescription for
healthier athletes all around. Many athletes do not have access to such a person, a professional, who is dedicated to protecting their mental health. Contrarily, the G.O.A.T.s are expected to go beyond athletic excellence and use their platform to elevate others: Athlete. Role Model. Advocate. Invincible. Let me just say, with these demands in place, G.O.A.T. can easily transition into sacrificial lamb.
Even more disturbing, I am witnessing “elite athletes” being snagged younger and younger often sacrificing a fun and joy-filled childhood sports experience for the rigorous training regimen deemed necessary to become a champion. Consider this. If the G.O.A.T.’s are hampered by unsupported mental health, what of the ones who crumble before making it to the limelight? Mental health must be incorporated in sports training intentionally and left to sideline high fives or a trip for pizza after a win.

Problem 3: Intersectionality is often overlooked in attempts to understand the mental health challenges of women and people of color. July is Minority Mental Health Month (or BIPOC Month), and it is designed to bring attention to and understanding of the unique mental health challenges experienced by BIPOC individuals. Female athletes of color occupy a unique space given the intersectionality of their multiple minority group memberships. Many of the G.O.A.T.’s mentioned here have earned the "First African American female to..." title. Although this is an honor, it is typically synonymous with many moments of only and lonely. Furthermore, imposter syndrome can leave many women of
color doubting whether they are worthy of the elite position they occupy. The Black female athlete feels the pressure to not “mess up” the opportunity and to leave the door open for those who look like her who will come along after her. Then there’s the mantra of the strong Black woman. Many Black women are concerned about appearing weak and feel pressured to represent the ability to endure adversity unscathed, thriving and not just surviving. These issues all represent challenges to one’s mental health. Now let’s look beyond mental health to mental illness.

Simone Biles has survived sexual abuse and battled depression. Currently, she is not simply resting abroad on her country’s dime or quitting. She is literally working to re-align her mind and body. The lack of synchronization in her mind and body prevents her from performing the skills required to compete. The risks associated with competing with this problem go beyond missing out on a gold medal to include those related to serious, career ending injury or even death. Naomi Osaka did not simply refuse to speak to the media because she did not want to be bothered. She was attempting to manage true illnesses, anxiety and depression. Sha’Carri Richardson was seeking a way to deal with grief and to cope with the loss of her mother. It should be understood that no number of gold medals replaces your one mother. None. Some question why these premier athletes don’t just toughen up and push through it. Well, the 'work harder and push through' method has its limits. Simone Manual was diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome forcing her to take time away from training. Pausing training wasn’t her desired choice, it was a must. She too acknowledged bouts of depression. All these examples highlight the centrality of mental health and the person behind the performance. When you consider the person, you better understand the importance of another competition: watch me vs see me. Watch me and be enthralled by my excellence alone. See me and be compassionate regarding my entire being- my physical greatness and my mental well-being. To the G.O.A.T.’s, I see you and I know you are more than a game!

Let’s be clear, none of what is discussed here is an indictment on sports or hard work. These are both essential and the heart of a champion is inspiring. This commentary is meant to highlight how the benefits of participation in sports can and must be enhanced by the intentional incorporation of mental health training for its participants commensurate with physical training. We must do more than applaud and salute these athletes for taking a stand for their mental health. We must receive their stand as a call to action to promote and protect the mental health of us all. Mental health must be escorted to its rightful place as the foundation of our healthy existence. Here are a few baseline suggestions:

1. Mental health services shouldn’t be limited to free, crisis based, short term offerings.

2. Mental health services should delivered by well paid, highly educated and exceptionally trained professionals.

3. Access to mental health services should be increased for all and coupled with diverse representation within provider networks.

4. Mental health should be taught in schools.

5. Insurance companies should cover annual mental health assessments and offer co-pay structures that better accommodate the fact that effective therapy typically requires 2-4 sessions per month over at least a three month period.

It’s good that we’re talking about mental health and acknowledging that it’s okay to not be okay. Now, let’s become great by establishing this as a starting point and aggressively integrating mental healthcare into our sports, our workplaces, our homes, our lives. Mental health is not a game for we all are more than a game!


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