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Last year will be remembered for many things — the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the violence at the U.S. Capitol. It should also be remembered as the year it became more acceptable to talk about our mental health.
Perhaps because of the pandemic — and the isolation and ongoing feelings of stress it has engendered — our collective mental well-being has gotten more attention. In fact, a new phrase has entered our collective lexicon: It is OK to not be OK.
In other words, it should be OK to acknowledge to your friends, family and employer that you are struggling. If you were ill or had a broken leg, you most likely wouldn’t keep that hidden and continue to work or manage your family’s busy schedule. You wouldn’t be called “weak” for taking time off. The same thinking should apply to mental wellbeing.
This message came strongly from several athletes.
In July, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles stunned the world when she withdrew from competition at the Olympics in Tokyo. During the team competition, Biles did a simplified version of her planned vault, landing shakily on her feet. Biles quickly huddled with her coach and left the venue floor with a team doctor. She emerged a few minutes later and packed up her backpack.
She later explained that she was withdrawing from the team competition because the “mental’s not there.”
“I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles said at a press conference after withdrawing from several gymnastics events at the delayed 2020 Olympics. “So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.”
Weeks earlier, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open tennis tournament. She skipped a post-match press conference and was fined and threatened with suspension from future Grand Slam competitions.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka tweeted the next day. She added that she’d “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018” and that she “had a really hard time coping with that.”
Osaka’s speaking out about her mental wellbeing drew support and praise from fellow tennis greats Serena Williams and Venus Williams.
“The fact that athletes have taken the center stage regarding mental health issues now is very encouraging. It gives people the opportunity to talk about things they haven’t talked about with anyone before — to open that conversation,” Venus Williams told Forbes late last year. She is promoting the efforts of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and BetterHelp, an online portal that provides direct-to-consumer access to mental health services, to destigmatize mental wellbeing.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has also shared how he has experienced depression during the coronavirus pandemic, both before and following his brother Jace’s suicide in April 2020.
“All throughout this quarantine and this offseason, I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before — anxiety for the main one,” Prescott said an emotional interview with journalist Graham Bensinger in September 2020. “And then, honestly a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression.”
“It showed me how vulnerable we have to be as humans, how open we have to be, because our adversity, our struggles, what we go through, [are] always going to be too much for ourselves,” he added. “And maybe too much for one or two people, but never too much for a community, or never too much for the people and the family that you love. So we have to share those things.”
On the world stage, Biles, Osaka, Prescott and others have shown us that we can speak out, we can ask for help. Stepping away, taking time to work through our stress, grief, fear, and asking for support is not a weakness, it is essential.