Young black athletes start a mental health revolution

Raven Saunders was on the rise after the Rio 2016 Olympics. She placed fifth in the women’s shot put and, upon her return, her hometown of Charleston, SC held a parade celebrating the ” Raven Saunders Day ”in his honor.

She returned to the University of Mississippi for her senior year, feeling unstoppable, but the peak was short-lived. She faced a series of post-Olympics setbacks during the 2017 college season and placed 10th at the World Track and Field Championships that year.

“In 2018, I had my depression,” Saunders said, adding that navigating life as a black, queer woman only added to the stress. She entered a period of depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I would base my self-esteem and how good I was as a person on how I did on the track,” she said. “When I ended up not having a good world championship competition, it sent me deeper into that hole. I knew I was exhausted, but I was still trying to get through it. But it wasn’t for me; it was to many people that I felt indebted.

Saunders, now 25, is part of a generation of elite black athletes who have taken charge of their sanity and spoken openly about their struggles. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, has withdrawn from Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year due to mental health concerns. Superstar gymnast Simone Biles, 24, has spoken of seeing a psychologist and taking anxiety medication. Olympic sprinter Noah Lyles, 24, has been a strong advocate for mental health care, sharing on Twitter that he take antidepressants and sees both an athletic therapist and a personal therapist. Olympic gold medalist swimmer Simone Manuel, 24, has spoken openly about taking a break after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome this year because she suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia and loss of life. appetite.

Such mental health issues are not uncommon among black athletes. But the willingness to speak so openly about struggles and publicly advocate for better care is fairly new to the world of professional sports, experts say.

Osaka’s decision to prioritize his mental health drew criticism from onlookers and even tennis legend Billie Jean King. The conviction underscores how rare Osaka’s decision was for a professional athlete, but it looks like young black athletes are taking control of their sanity and public image in ways never seen before. Taking necessary mental health breaks and sharing them with the world is becoming the norm in sport, and elite black athletes are leading the charge.

“Athletes are increasingly taking ownership of their personal narrative and making their own choices to share that personal narrative,” said LeʼRoy Reese, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Morehouse School of Medicine. athletes we’ve never seen before when it comes to their voices.

This urgent focus on mental wellness recently made headlines when Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100 meters at the Olympic trials in June, was banned from competing in the Tokyo Games after being tested. positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana. She said she had used marijuana to cope with the recent death of her birth mother, who she said had left her in “a state of emotional panic.”

USA Track and Field pledged in a statement to “work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has sufficient resources to overcome any mental health issues now and in the future.”

In 2018, DeMar DeRozan, who plays for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, tweeted frankly: “This depression got the better of me…” He quickly became a strong advocate for mental health, revealing his battle with depression and anxiety. His advocacy and that of other players have led the NBA to demand that teams have at least one full-time licensed mental health professional on their staff.

According to Athletes for Hope, an organization that connects athletes with charitable causes, up to 35% of professional athletes will face a mental health crisis. However, large sports organizations have been slow to secure adequate mental health resources for athletes. Team USA created its “Athlete Services Division” in 2019 to strengthen its support services, and athletes can now access mental health resources such as therapists, counseling groups and helplines.

“Too often there has been a mild neglect of the physical and mental well-being of professional athletes,” said Reese. Professional leagues “don’t think about the impact of performance stress at such a high level on an athlete’s quality of life.”

“Very often nothing prepares you to be a professional athlete. You prepare yourself physically, but young professional athletes have not been prepared for the pressures and expectations that come with being put in the spotlight. “

Saunders, however, was able to get the help she needed before it was too late.

In January 2018, Saunders, whose powerful performances and strong demeanor earned her the nickname “Hulk,” was so grieved with depression and anxiety that she said she was considering ending her life by quitting. a Mississippi highway. Instead, she contacted her therapist and decided to put her athletic life on hold for treatment at a mental health facility.

Raven Saunders her new mini-documentary, “Olympic athlete tackles depression”.WETA / Well-being

“At first, I was hesitant to go. It was very taboo because of my perceived strength as being strong, ”she said. “But once there, I let it all go. It’s nice to be in a place where you don’t feel so alone anymore.

Today, Saunders does not hesitate to share his story. She said she had implemented several mental health practices, such as meditation and reading, as she headed to the Tokyo Olympics. She tweets regularly about the importance of mental health and was even featured in a PBS mini-documentary titled “Olympic Athlete Takes on Depression”.

It should be noted that many of the athletes who championed mental health care were women. Over the years, female athletes have increasingly shared their stories of depression and anxiety, even at the risk of their careers. WNBA legend Chamique Holdsclaw suffered from depression, mental breakdown and even attempted suicide in the early 2000s while playing for the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks, she revealed in his 2012 autobiography “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot. ”

She had kept her mental health issues a secret for years before revealing it all in her book about two years after her retirement in 2010. “You are tagged as a coward with mental health issues like mine,” a- she told the Washington Post. “People would say I was a ‘puzzle’. Or a “problem”. From the start, I knew it wasn’t me.

Holdsclaw’s openness sets an important precedent for female athletes revealing their mental health issues. This change comes at a time when women’s athletics is more popular than ever. Athletes like Biles and Serena Williams are hailed as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their sport. Brands and marketers are increasingly investing in women’s sport, and global television and sponsorship revenue for women’s athletics is expected to exceed $ 1 billion, according to a Deloitte report.

“There was this myth that women are not as competitive as men or that their sports are not as enjoyable. Then you have female athletes like Naomi Osaka, she is one of the most prominent athletes, ”said Dr. Caroline M. Brackette, Certified Counselor and Professor in the College of Health Professions at Mercer University. She noted that depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health issues among athletes.

“Traditionally, women speak more about personal care… so I’m not surprised that you see, just like in society, more women talking about mental health and well-being in sport. “

Brackette said the increase in public mental health advocacy among young black athletes is a reflection of society as a whole, where the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly diminishing. Brackette and Reese say social media only reinforces the change, as athletes can connect with their millions of followers with a simple tweet or Instagram post.

Whatever the cause of the growing advocacy, Saunders says she’s sure it will continue.

“Looking at people like Naomi and all the other athletes talking about it, I have a feeling it’s going to start a snowball effect,” Saunders said. “The next person will talk about it, then the next person and the next person. And people will say, “Well, if the athletes are talking about it, I guess it’s cool for us to start talking about it too. ”

“People will see that this is not as negative as you might think. There are a lot more benefits to being open than we would like to think.”

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