Four months before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, gold medal swimmer Missy Franklin was diagnosed with depression, insomnia, anxiety and an eating disorder. Today, she is among a growing number of Olympic athletes who are speaking out about the importance of mental health (“Olympian Missy Franklin opens up on depression,” CNN, March 24, 2018).
Going into the 2016 games, Franklin was prepared physically, but her mental health was a different story. “Going into Rio, I was in the best physical shape of my entire life. I had the best year of training I’d ever had, and that meant nothing because mentally I was in such a terrible place that I was useless, my body was useless,” said Franklin. But no one knew — Franklin kept her mental health difficulties hidden beneath her cheerful personality and signature smile.
Franklin’s story is common among Olympic athletes. From an early age, many athletes are taught to push through anything and everything to win. This mentality makes it difficult to address and talk about mental health challenges both then and later in life. There is an additional pressure on Olympic athletes, Franklin explains, “You’re supposed to be really strong, you’re supposed to be really confident, and I think people sometimes forget that we’re human too.”
One of the greatest mental health risks for Olympic athletes is post-Olympic depression, according to clinical sport psychologist Kristin Keim. Many athletes devote their entire lives to training for the Olympics. Those two weeks are a rollercoaster, filled with adrenaline and action. But the transition back to normal life isn’t easy — without the buildup and excitement of the games, athletes often feel purposeless.
Fortunately, there are ways to help athletes successfully transition post-Olympics. It’s critical for athletes to build an identity outside of their sport by developing long-term plans and getting involved in unrelated activities. It’s also important for them to realize that their sport is something that they do —not who they are. The personal qualities that motivate them — perseverance, passion and work ethic — are transferable to other interests.
More athletes are speaking out about their experiences. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has become a vocal advocate for mental health after battling depression and has called for the U.S. Olympic Committee to address athletes’ mental health. This year, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, figure skater Adam Rippon spoke openly about his experience with an eating disorder.
For Franklin, it was important to see top athletes and role models like Phelps talk about mental health. It proved that mental illness does not discriminate, even if you’re an Olympic gold medalist, but that there is no shame in it either. By sharing her own story, Franklin hopes to similarly help young athletes prioritize mental health throughout their athletic careers and lives.
Follow Franklin’s example — learn more about mental health and spread the message! Get started with a Mental Health First Aid course. On and off the field (or in and out of the pool), you’ll be prepared to recognize and respond to mental health crises and problems, and know how to connect people to the support they need.