*Spoiler Alert! It’s NOT.*
It appears that the subject of mental health is something else that can divide us in 2021.
Yaaaay! One more thing!!!
As I listen to and read all of the hot takes on Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, I fight the urge to become a keyboard warrior on behalf of these women, and so many like them, who are advocating for their mental health above their athletic career.
But, you see, I don’t know much about being a professional or elite athlete.
But I do know a bit about mental health and why it is so important that even if we don’t understand it, we respect the rights of others who are prioritizing and recognizing theirs.
It’s important because as much as mental health has become part of the national conversation, there are still so many people who struggle in silence due to the stigma attached.
It’s important because statistics show that even if you are not personally dealing with a mental health issue, someone close to you is.
It’s important because learning about mental health doesn’t just help you understand the journey of someone else, it helps you know yourself that much better.
You see, the uphill battle that we take on when we try to explain mental health is that so many people have trouble believing it exists because they believe that they can’t ‘see’ the symptoms.
In reality, you see the symptoms all of the time.
You just think that they are caused by something else.
What Katy and Laura have mastered is explaining anxiety in a way that relies on SCIENCE, but is accessible to everyone who suffers from the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
One of the aspects that they highlight is the fact that anxiety and its broad range of symptoms are present not only in your brain, and also in your body and through your behavior. They call this your B3.
The symptoms are broad, but I’ll list just a few so you get the picture.
Brain – difficulty concentrating, irritability, catastrophizing (thinking the worst), perfectionism.
Body – difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, tingling, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, sweating
Behavior – unexpected shyness, sudden fast-talking, a change in your sleeping and eating patterns.
These types of symptoms can often be linked to other ailments. So much of the time, people who are dealing with them won’t even take stress or anxiety into account. They’ll list every other possible illness. They’ll hit up WebMD. They’ll ask for unsolicited medical advice from friends.
They won’t take a minute to list everything that’s going on in their lives to see if there is a correlation.
I cannot tell you how many times in the three years that I have worked at Anxiety Resource Center that I have talked to someone I love (Especially in the past year.) and as they list their symptoms and the issues in their lives, they sound SHOCKED when I mention anxiety to them as a possible factor.
Another problem is that we often wait until things get extreme before we address the potential of anxiety or stress being an issue. Have an ulcer? Now it’s time to think about mental health. Experience heart palpitations that result in an ER visit? Maybe it’s time for some counseling.
We need to start addressing it way before those things happen. Just as Simone and Naomi have.
But how can we when we’re met with skeptism from the people in our lives? How do we feel comfortable with openly discussing our mental health struggles when we see our uncle posting about how he thinks it’s fake, an excuse, or a way to avoid something?
I worked admin. in the medical field for fifteen years and I can tell you this, people fake physical ailments all the time. There will always be people who take advantage of a situation, but that should not erase the validity of those who are truly struggling. We don’t question people who are dealing with back pain even though I have seen DOZENS of people fake that in my lifetime. We don’t ask someone in a leg cast to tap dance just because we knew a guy who knew a guy who faked a broken leg to get some time off.
Why do we not offer the same understanding to people who are suffering from anxiety symptoms, stress, or depression?
Why do we wait until something tragic happens to wring our hands and say that we wished we had known the issues sooner?
Across the country, there is a culture shift happening in high-pressure work environments in response to burnout and rising suicide rates.
How many bright, idealistic, passionate, HARD WORKING people suffer in silence because they don’t want to be seen as weak, or a ‘quitter’?
How many deaths were the result of a very real fear that admitting to a mental health issue would mean ostracization, a demotion, or even termination?
These cultures have needed reckoning for a while. Hospitals, The Armed Forces, colleges, medical schools, and yes, even sports, need to take a holistic look at their employees and participants and work to fully understand the issues that come with having a caveman brain in a 21st-century world. Being well versed on the various symptoms of mental illness and how they manifest can help supervisors, HR departments and student advisors intervene that much sooner.
That’s another reason why what Laura and Katy do is important. They have been able to work with clients who may have come in as cynics understand how what’s happening in their brain can also affect their body and their behavior. This helps each client figure out the source of their symptoms as well as the best strategies for easing them. Knowledge is power and when you are able to identify your symptoms and trace them back to your anxiety you are learning how to coexist with your brain in the healthiest way.
I can’t speak to whether or not Simone and Naomi are in therapy, but I can speak to the fact whether you agree with what they’ve done or not, the decision is not up to you, or me, or even your favorite sports pundit.
Prioritizing their mental health means putting that above the opinions of others who haven’t had their experiences.
There will continue to be athletes who make decisions based on their mental health just as there will continue to be people who doubt them. The battle to recognize and acknowledge mental health struggles is divisive because they don’t appear in the ways that we have been indoctrinated to believe that they do. At first.
It’s all in our heads until it’s not.
The best thing to do, after recognizing your stressors and your symptoms, is to find effective ways to quell those symptoms before they do hijack your life. The best way to do that is to consult with a mental health professional who can help you recognize not only the challenges you are facing but also teach you how to utilize your strengths.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental health, and we will continue to learn and grow when it comes to addressing how we deal with anxiety, stress, depression, and the myriad of other issues that confront us as humans. The important thing is that when you realize that your symptoms are beyond what WebMD or Google can help you with, you need to seek out support the same way you would for that ulcer or those heart palpitations.
And ignore people on the internet.