“If exercise is so good for you, why do athletes get depressed?” It’s a question I’m often asked. Indeed, it’s the same question that motivated me to return to study sport psychology some years ago.
You learn very quickly that even though athletes can pull off superhuman endeavours, they are not immune from mental illness. In fact, they may be even more susceptible to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression because of the pressurised life they lead.
All elite sport carries immense physical and mental strain. If you’re on a pedestal, the pressure increases.
The highly-decorated US gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of an event at the Tokyo Olympics this week because she recognised she wasn’t able to compete. Had it been her arm that stopped her, the narrative would have been very different.
Both head and body health are needed for the kind of performance we expect from Ms Biles – who, by the way, has already managed to win titles while competing with broken toes and suffering from a kidney stone. She has survived sexual abuse by a team doctor and a dysfunctional start to life before being adopted by her grandparents. She has dealt with the kind of adversity most of us couldn’t even imagine.
Gymnastics is a sport that can be dangerous. If you’ve lost confidence in yourself, how could you trust yourself to flip upside-down at speed?
We’ve already seen this happen to gymnasts at the 2000 Sydney Games. The vault was set two inches too low. Competitor after competitor struggled and it put their safety at risk. Afterwards, those who were expected to be in medal contention spoke about how that incident ruined their mental game. One small mistake didn’t just mean losing out on a medal, it could have caused severe injury too.
The separation of mental and physical health is so damaging. If the head was included in ‘physical health’, people like Ms Biles and Naomi Osaka – the tennis star who withdrew from this year’s French Open – wouldn’t be subjected to worldwide commentary ranging from congratulating them for their honesty to being accused of being snowflakes.
To go back to that initial question: yes, exercise is good for us. It can contribute to our well-being and has been shown to help insulate us against mental distress. But that’s as part of a balanced lifestyle and not when it’s your job. When exercise and athleticism become your sole focus, that’s something entirely different.
There has never been pressure like that which star athletes feel today. That has only been heightened by the circumstances of this pandemic Olympics. Athletes don’t have their usual support system around them. People are kept in bubbles, terrified of picking up a virus that could scupper their chances.
Meanwhile, more and more media organisations and social media creates a noise that is hard to avoid. Mistakes are amplified. Funding often depends on ranking or winning medals.
The sheer achievement of reaching the Olympic Games, which takes years of hard work, isn’t enough for many any more.
Athletes who haven’t got the fame of Ms Biles can struggle to make ends meet as they try to live on meagre grants and allowances during the four-year cycle. This isn’t good for their mental health either.
A review of how Irish athletes are funded is needed. Former hurdler Derval O’Rourke painted a grim picture only a few months ago, describing how international funding is €12,000 a year for a carded Irish athlete, rising to €40,000 if you become a world champion. Annette Woolley, the mother of Irish taekwondo hopeful Jack, spoke on RTÉ Radio yesterday about the constant struggle to make ends meet.
Money might not be a problem for Ms Biles, but haven’t we seen and heard of enough cases to show us that money, no more than sport or fame, doesn’t protect you from health problems?
So, what can be done? The Sport Ireland Institute Performance Psychology team do excellent work, helping athletes navigate the psychological demands of elite level sport, and are supporting our competitors in Tokyo. Other sporting organisations such as the GAA and the FAI are catching up on the importance of providing psychological support to their players, but we still have a long road to travel.
Too often, a sport psychologist is still seen as an optional extra or somebody to call when the proverbial hits the fan.
We can’t lay all the responsibility at the feet of sporting organisations. Governments the world over need to start putting more funding into mental health services. This would go a long way to helping people understand that an injury to the mind is to be taken as seriously as a dislocated shoulder or a broken leg.
The Irish Hospital Consultants Association says 30pc of permanent consultant psychiatrist posts are vacant in Ireland. We have 1,000 acute adult mental health beds, down from 4,000 in 2005. People often wait for months to see a psychologist or a counsellor. There is still huge stigma around mental disorders, so people try to hide it and suffer even more.
Naomi Osaka warned us. Simone Biles has reinforced that message. I fear we’re still not ready to hear it. I fear even more for the potentially devastating consequences of our choosing to not understand that mental health is health.
Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh is a sports broadcaster and is Sport Ireland accredited in sport psychology