A lot has changed around mental health. In the conversations of our communities, topics of anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles no longer need to be avoided. People talk about their therapy sessions and trade self-care tips with each other.
Yet, there is still a cost to dealing with a mental health condition for athletes and the rest of the general population. It is paid with the loss of close connections to mental health stigma, the loss of opportunities to a lack of understanding, and the actual penalization of mental well-being prioritization.
We like to believe we’re beyond this societal treatment of mental health. Yet, in our own realities, this belief may be nothing more than an illusion.
The Price of Having a Mental Health Condition
We are told to use our days off- that’s what they’re there for, to take those “self-care days”. Yet, most employees don’t actually feel like they have permission to use PTO for taking care of themselves and their mental well-being. If they did, we wouldn’t see fifty percent of American employees going without their vacations.
Almost anyone you bring the topic up with would enthusiastically nod their head in agreement with the statement, “Nobody should face discrimination in the workplace for their health.” We all supposedly believe in understanding and accommodations, but in the everyday lives of those with a mental illness, this is not found to be the reality. In the working world, mental health disorders stay secrets so appearances can be maintained. After all, we all want to be seen as capable of our jobs – and mental health struggles still, unfortunately, seem to send the opposite message.
As for accommodations, just requesting them can backfire. Many employees have stories of the negative consequences of becoming transparent about their mental illness with their boss. The work environment may become hostile or the employee may actually be fired.
Of course, by now, we’ve all heard of the recent example from the Sports world. In the Naomi Osaka case, we can see an athlete whose attempt to manage her own mental health was not just disrespected but actually led to penalization. While it is commendable that the tennis player took actions to safeguard her own mental well-being, the response was a $15,000 fine.
This widely-publicized event is only one example of the price paid by athletes for their mental health.
The Cost of Mental Health to an Athlete’s Career
For professional athletes, their peak physical health is an actual job requirement. Performance in any sport won’t be at its best if the athlete has a sprained ankle or a cold. Unfortunately, mental health simply isn’t considered as essential for athletic performance.
Strong mental well-being can also be extremely important in winning the game – determination and drive are typically prized skills in an athlete. For this reason alone, praise should follow any athlete’s choice to prioritize mental health. Instead, when mental health issues arise in the sports industry, they have pushed aside, dismissed, and addressed utterly inadequately.
A big reason behind this may be the public perception that so much effort is put into maintaining. At the end of the day, an athlete’s job is not really to perform a sport, but to be a public figure. That role as a public figure seems to require an image of perfection, so that athletic figures aren’t able to show the weaknesses of a human being.
These people are human beings, but as athletes, they pay the price of not having their humanity recognized and respected.
How the Athletic Lifestyle Amplifies Mental Health Issues
The treatment of athletes does not just become an issue when mental health concerns are raised. It may actually be a cause of worsening mental health for many.
There is a lot asked of athletes, from rigorous training schedules that require sleep sacrifices to the ability to thrive under pressure in the competitive landscape of sports and do so while constantly under the scrutiny of the public eye. The stress of so many high expectations alone can cause difficulties with mental health for one living an athletic lifestyle. This makes it especially hard for those that enter into this lifestyle while having depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder.
Someone whose mental health situation requires them to devote more time to taking care of themselves may find, as an athlete, that their needs go neglected and their mental state declines. The pressure of the career is often the last thing one needs to support mental well-being. Their role as public figures, as well, may often do more harm than good – subjecting athletes to social anxieties and any doubts society may pose for them.
In the end, the athletic career itself may often be the root cause of mental health struggles. So why is it athletes that pay for this end result?
Athletes Should Not Have to Pay for Their Mental Health
There shouldn’t be fines associated with actions that an athlete undertakes for the sake of their mental health. There shouldn’t be shame awaiting athletes that bring their mental health struggles into the spotlight they occupy as public figures. There shouldn’t be any punishments at all for athletes dealing with mental health situations.
As humans, we all have mental health, though our situations are all obviously different. The situation of each individual athlete is also unique, but they are humans. They should not have to pay any price for being so.
Supporting Athletes with Help, Not Fines
The solution will never lie in the fines given by these organizations. Only actual support for the mental health of athletes will lead to the results we all want to see. Instead of penalizing them, sports organizations can offer supportive programs that potentially reward athletes coming forward about their mental health needs.
The sports industry overall must learn new ways to approach athlete mental health. This means journalists rethinking how the questions they ask may potentially be invasive and may hit on sensitive insecurities, sports organizations supporting the health of their participants, whether it’s physical or mental, and the services of mental health professionals being made easily accessible to athletes.
To do their jobs, athletes don’t need “motivating” fines. They need true mental health support.