‘Champions of mental health’: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps helping lead change at Tokyo Olympics and in Massachusetts

Many around the world were stunned when Simone Biles withdrew from the competition at the Olympics on Tuesday. But as Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and others continue talking about mental health, some say they are creating change bigger than gold medals.

“These are the champions of mental health,” said Dr. Marni Chanoff, psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. “It should be part of the culture, so we’re training mind and we’re training body and we’re training spirit.”

After Biles withdrew from the competition on Tuesday, she cited it was for mental health reasons. She also withdrew from Thursday’s all-around competition for the same reason.

“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it, it’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year,” she said. “So just a lot of different variables and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out but we should be out here having fun and sometimes, that’s not the case.”

Phelps has previously talked about his own mental health struggles and said he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics.

“We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect,” Phelps, the winner of a record 23 gold medals, told the Associated Press. “So yes, it is OK not to be OK.”

Osaka, who recently left the French Open, write a Time article echoing the same idea.

“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,” she wrote. “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”

Giving people that permission to talk about it, Chanoff said, is the answer.

“We need that permission and we need the awareness and we need the support of those people who are responsible and who are there to support our overall well being,” Chanoff said.

This year, the International Olympic Committee increased its mental health resources ahead of the Tokyo Games, the AP reported. This included psychologists and psychiatrists are onsite in the Olympic village and establishing a “Mentally Fit Helpline” before, during and after the Games.

“Are we doing enough? I hope so. I think so,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the AP. “But like everyone in the world, we are doing more on this issue.”

The idea of training mind, body and spirit shouldn’t be limited to the Olympic games, Chanoff said. It should also be happening at all levels of competition, including in Massachusetts.

“I think from the very beginning to make sure that the coaches that we are entrusting with our children have an understanding of not just how to train athletes in the physical sense, but to be looking out for their mental health,” she said.

In 2019, McLean Hospital became the official mental health care partner of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The partnership looked to “increase awareness and reduce stigma around issues that often arise during adolescence, including bullying, anxiety, depression, substance use, and trauma.”

“Mental health is a critical component of every child’s overall health and through this partnership, McLean Hospital will have an opportunity to be a trusted resource for students and their families across the Commonwealth,” Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and psychiatrist in chief for McLean Hospital, said in a press release.

Emerson College in Boston put on three mental wellness workshops for athletes earlier this year.

“The series is centered around the resiliency of student athletes through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first workshop with focus on the Athlete Identity,” the website stated.

Continuing conversations like these and changing the culture will “require resources and it will require time and attention,” Chanoff said.

“If the coaches feel like they are equipped and trained, and they have the language to invite children and young athletes to talk about their experience, it will be more effective,” she said. “It will feel like it becomes something that is welcomed among teammates, not just between team members or their coaches but the entire team. It just becomes part of the conversation.”

Chanoff noted that it’s important to remember that it’s not just those speaking out that are dealing with these issues.

“They are brave enough to come out about it,” she said. “But there are so many, so many who are suffering silently.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you are not alone.

Samaritans Statewide Hotline

Call or Text: 1-877-870-HOPE (4673)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Press # 1 if you are a Veteran

The Trevor Helpline

866-4-U-TREVOR (488-7386) Support designed for for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and young adults

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