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What We Can Learn From Athletes And Their Mental Health

I had planned to write a post on mental health and type 2 diabetes, but decided to wait on a more opportune time. But with Simone Biles’s shocking exit from the Tokyo Olympics, I thought this was the best time to tackle this important subject. As a therapist who worked with mentally ill patients for many years and who had a family member who suffered from mental illness, I feel a great deal of empathy for the mentally ill. Whether she is a decorated, world-famous athlete or a lowly person struggling to make ends meet, mental illness affects us all.

Simone Biles at the Olympics all around gold medal podium From Wikimedia Commons

Dubbed “The Face of the Games,” Biles was expected to once more dominate the gymnast field and add to her vast collection of gold medals. But on Monday night, when she failed to execute a maneuver that had been second nature to her, Biles decided it was time to take a break. She is not the first famous athlete to confess to having mental problems. Recently, Naomi Osaka, tennis star, also withdrew from this year’s French Open and exited in the third round of the Olympics after losing to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic. In 2016, Michael Phelps also revealed that he too wrestled with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Those are just three of the big names, but other athletes have also spoken out about their struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Speaking of Osaka’s decision to withdraw, Biles said, “I say put mental health first because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your score and you’re not gonna succeed as much as you want to.” She continued, “So, it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor or a person that you really are.”  

Here Biles is speaking about athletic competition, but can you see a message in her words for ordinary folk like you and me? I do. If I substitute the word life for score and the phrase some things for big competitions … see what I mean? Many of us stress ourselves out trying to achieve the pot of gold beyond the rainbow and we fail to enjoy life. We don’t take time to look after ourselves. We can’t say no to others. We subject ourselves to a lot of pressure just trying to please others.

On the other side of the coin, there are those of us who have inherited a family history of depression. This makes it more difficult to manage your depression. If you have diabetes – either type 1 or type 2 – you are at a greater risk for depression. Part of the reason is that managing diabetes can be stressful. It can also lead to other health problems which may worsen symptoms of depression.

There is still a stigma attached to mental health. Hopefully, with famous people like Biles and Osaka speaking out about their mental health, more people will be encouraged to come forward and get treatment. If you are diabetic and find yourself experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness for no apparent reason, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, unexplained back pain or headaches, consult your doctor. Do not wait until your feelings become worse. The sooner you begin treatment, the sooner you will begin to enjoy life again.

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