Monday, March 3, 2014

Medals and Mental Illness: Olympic Athlete Sparks A Dialogue

Today's guest post comes from Julie Maier. Julie has a master’s degree in social work and is currently a PhD student in the Kinesiology Department at the University of Maryland (Physical Cultural Studies focus).  Her research interests focus on the intersection of mental health, gender, sexuality, and the body. If you'd like to get in touch, she can be reached at

Olympic season brings with it a plethora of news stories focused on some of the best athletes in the world.  In addition to factual accounts of Olympians’ performances, human-interest stories and sensationalized gossip pervade the print and online media.  Indeed, one would have to bury his or her head in the snow to avoid hearing about athletes during this time of year.  While many Olympic-centered articles are seemingly trivial, some stand out as having the potential to create a more socially just world.  For example, an Olympian came out describing his struggles with something that remains relegated to doctors’ offices or psychology classrooms: mental illness.  Though athletes’ discussion of mental health can be seen as a way to de-stigmatize this issue, the overall impact is dependent upon informed reporting that does not perpetuate misconceptions about various forms of distress.

  Upon winning the gold medal in the 1,000 meter men’s speed skating event in Sochi, the news reports that followed not only detailed the Dutch athlete Stefan Groothuis’ Olympic win, but his disclosure of his battle with depression.  According to Reuters, Groothuis had struggled with depression for years, which hindered not only his training, but his overall ability to enjoy life.  Casert, in an article by the Associated Press, noted that Groothius’ depression brought him to the point of contemplating suicide.  By opening up about mental illness, Groothius joins a handful of professional athletes who, through the years, have come out as living with particular forms of distress such as depression, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The significance of such attention to mental health issues cannot be overstated.  Though progress undoubtedly is being made to reduce the stigmatization of those who live with mental illness, there is still a long way to go.  For instance, in a 2014 article published in Psychiatry Services, Dr. Jennifer Stuber and colleagues found that negative attitudes towards people with mental illness were prevalent amongst the lay public, as well as some mental health providers.  Participants indicated being particularly afraid of individuals with schizophrenia due to the misperception that such people are inherently dangerous.  Additionally, over two-thirds of the general public and almost one half of mental health practitioners in the study reported not wanting somebody with schizophrenia to marry into their family.  Such stereotypes contribute to an environment in which those suffering from mental health conditions are subject to discrimination, marginalization, and various forms of abuse.  Greater openness about mental health may help to educate the general public about a topic that frequently arises only in light of sensationalized tragedies such as mass shootings, and then quickly disappears, sending the message that those with mental illness are a threat to public safety, and mental health is only appropriate to discuss when lives have been taken.

The fact that professional athletes are stepping out and talking about their experiences with distress is of particular importance.  In the realm of sport, a traditionally (and still!) masculine domain, mental illness is too often equated with weakness.  In fact, historian Dr. Roberta Park (2012) noted that sport was used as a way to toughen up men returning from war who were suffering from what we might now consider a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The idea that mental illness is a form of weakness or an excuse can be seen in many of the responses to NBA player Royce White’s coming out as having obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in 2012, which included death threats.  Such negative reactions, however, only reaffirm the importance of celebrated athletes speaking up about mental health.

Although self-disclosure is of course not enough in and of itself to drastically change the lives of those living with depression, schizophrenia, or the like, it can have a positive impact on the discourse surrounding mental health.  This is dependent upon the way journalists and others craft and frame the athletes’, and other public figures’, stories.  For example, one headline pertaining to Groothius announced that “Groothuis gold ends years of misery, depression,” while another boasted that “Stefan Groothuis overcomes depression and wins Olympic gold.”  Such framing may perpetuate the misconception that most mental illnesses can be overcome, never to return, as opposed to an ongoing condition whose severity may ebb and flow throughout one’s life--something that can be managed, though never fully cured.  This is not to discount Groothuis’ experience; perhaps he has indeed ‘overcome’ depression. However, for many suffering from depression—particularly, major depressive disorder—they may never be fortunate enough to be totally free from depression (see psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s widely cited book, Against Depression, for more on this).  With that said, the aforementioned headlines may make people with depression who have struggled for years to recover feel further marginalized, while perhaps sending the message that mental illness is temporary.

Additional conversation surrounding mental health is desperately needed, and stories such as Groothius’ help to chip away at the deep-seated misunderstanding and stereotyping pertaining to mental illness.  Hopefully one day athletes coming out with their stories of depression will be a non-issue, but until then, such disclosures are vital for the health of all.

1 comment:

  1. Olympic diver Greg Louganis has also been quite outspoken about his own challenges with depression, and was featured in a documentary that recently came out through California's Each Mind Matters anti-stigma initiative: