Olympic long-distance runner and national record-breaker Alexi Pappas recently came forward to reveal she was diagnosed with severe clinical depression after she achieved the pinnacle of her running career in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
I believe her story reflects the importance of coaches and teammates prioritizing athletes' mental health as much as their physical health.
Olympic athletes are supposed to be indestructible idols of the absolute limits humans can drive themselves toward; they are our heroes. However, even though Olympic athletes are adorned with medals and celebrated in the public eye, that does not mean they are incapable of breaking.
In fact, it almost seems inevitable.
In a New York Times video, Pappas disclosed how after achieving her life-long goals, she fell into a hole filled with sleepless nights and suicidal thoughts. All while pushing herself to continue Olympic-level running with only one hour of sleep per night. Eventually, she pushed her body so much that she developed a tear in her hamstring and a crack in one of the lower bones in her back, until she “couldn’t move without being in terrible pain.”
It wasn’t until her deteriorating mental health began affecting her physical health that Pappas began to see a psychiatrist, who finally told her that she had an injury to her brain: depression. And just like if she fell down and hurt herself, Pappas had to treat it to eventually heal.
If all athletes were taught that mental health conditions were not signs of weakness, but instead serious injuries that have a path to healing, perhaps there would not be so many athletes who sink into pits of their own depression.
Other notable athletes who have struggled with their mental health during the peaks of their careers include: Michael Phelps, Gracie Gold, Shaun White, Kevin Love and David Freese.
Anxiety or depression alone is prevalent in 34% of current elite athletes and in 26% of former elite athletes, emphasizing the need for a minimum standard of care that addresses their mental health necessities.
I am by no means an Olympic athlete, but I have competed in sports for a large portion of my life. Throughout junior high school and senior high school, I ran cross-country and track and field every single day. I have experienced first-hand the immense pressure that comes with competition and trying to beat yourself every time you step up to the line. It can completely cloud your thinking and turn a sport you once loved into the source of your depression.
It wasn’t until I came to college and began running cross-country with a club that prioritized how I felt instead of what times I was producing, that I began to fall back in love with running and become at peace with myself once again.
If the “strongest” among us can break down once they have defeated all odds in the most challenging competitions in the world, when will it be okay for the rest of us to be fragile, too?