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Lessons from the Arena: Athletes Are Not Immune to Mental Health Disorders

aerial shot of a male swimmer doing the butterfly stroke - athletes

The athletes we admire often seem superhuman, don’t they?

Athletes & Mental Health

They accomplish incredible feats over and over again under intense pressure. They put the ball in the hoop from great distances. They make a circus catch and then run away from the defenders for a touchdown. They hit a home run that seems like it will never land, leap higher than seems possible, or return a tennis ball that seems like it must be out of their reach. They shoot the puck or kick the ball right past the goalie.

We cheer and we marvel and we do all of the things that fans do—buy the jerseys and wear the hats, read the sports pages and websites, trash talk fans of the rival teams, put posters on our walls, fill out the brackets, tune into the coverage, and more.

Watching athletes perform brings us so much joy. And when they accomplish something great, we often are witness to their own joy at defeating an opponent, accomplishing a goal, or winning a championship. It can seem like athletes—especially superstar athletes—are always on top of the world.

But no matter how successful they are or how many accolades they garner or how many people buy their merch, athletes are just humans like the rest of us. And that means they are susceptible to mental health challenges.

Take, for example, Michael Phelps.

‘Nobody…Can Win Like He Wins.’

When it comes to men’s swimming, no name is more synonymous with the sport than Michael Phelps.

Here’s what Eddie Reese, the head coach of the United States Olympic team, said about Phelps in 2008:

“There’s nobody in any sport that can win like he wins. He’s not just winning, he’s crunching world records, he’s crunching the field. I’ve seen him do some of the most amazing things. I would safely say I would never bet against him.”

But if you made a bet that Phelps was immune to mental health difficulties as a result of his incredible success in the pool, you would lose. Phelps has been honest about his struggles—and he’s been clear about the importance of seeking out the help he needed.

“If someone wants to call me weak for asking for help, that’s their problem,” Phelps has said. “Because I’m saving my own life.”

The swimming legend makes an important point here. Sometimes we are too ashamed to ask for help because we are worried about what others will think of us if they find out we are struggling. Phelps puts the focus where it needs to be—on the fact that getting help can literally save a person’s life. Even in less dramatic circumstances, getting treatment for a mental health disorder can significantly improve a person’s quality of life.

Phelps offered his support to another topflight athlete who went on record about mental health issues.

‘It’s O.K. to not be O.K.’

Tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021, and her decision to do so inspired a lot of commentary from a lot of people. Some, like Phelps, were supportive; plenty of other folks were less so.

Osaka herself took to the pages of Time magazine to talk about what she was going through, why her decision was the right for her, and how she was battling her own anxiety to bring attention to her important message:

“Believe it or not, I am naturally introverted and do not court the spotlight. I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right, but that often comes at a cost of great anxiety. I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers. I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”

We want to highlight that last bit again: There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.

We Are People Who Can Help

At Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health, we help individuals improve their overall mental well-being with personalized treatment plans grounded in both evidence-based practices and our commitment to compassionate care. But the ball is in your court. If you are ready to tackle any mental health disorder that is lessening your quality of life, we are ready to help.

Looking for Colorado behavioral health treatment center? For more information about Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health, and the programs we offer, contact us today at (800) 313-3387.

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