They compete in championships. You break records. You win gold in the Olympics. While professional athletes do behind closed doors what most of us can only dream of, many struggle with their mental health.
The relationship between athletes and mental health
Top athletes are considered sacrosanct when it comes to their physical health, but while they are famous for their physical achievements, their mental health may not be as impressive. In reality, poor mental health is common among athletes.
It is not easy to be in the limelight, to push your body to its limits, to meet the enormous pressure to perform and for retired athletes to redefine your identity after leaving. An estimated 34% of current top athletes and 26% of former top athletes suffer from anxiety or depression.1 Many fight in the dark and some Professional athletes use drugs to help them cope instead of getting formal help.
Former and current sports stars with mental illness
Because of the stigma, not every athlete talks about their mental health problems, but more and more come forward.
Here are some past and current athletes with mental illnesses who speak up.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, may have dominated the medal podium, but outside the pool, Phelps battled depression and suicidal thoughts. The swimmer admits that there were days when he didn’t want to get out of bed and sometimes he got along with drinking. After his second DUI, Phelps went to an inpatient treatment center where he learned skills that will help him cope with his depression. Although he still struggles at times, these skills have helped him move forward.2.3
As an up and coming tennis starter, Naomi Osaka has made headlines since she decided not to attend a post-game press conference at the French Open and later retired from the tournament. As one of many athletes with anxiety and depression, Osaka cited her mental health as a reason not to attend the press conference. She continues to talk about mental health in sports as well as racial injustice in tennis.4th
Terry Bradshaw is a former NHL quarterback who later became a football analyst and actor. Although his career is enviable, Bradshaw struggled with depression for most of his life. Like many athletes with depression, Bradshaw drank to cope with it, but eventually realized that alcohol didn’t help. After the former Pittsburgh Steelers star began taking drugs for depression, he was able to manage his symptoms better and stop self-medication.5
Serena Williams, an icon in tennis, has spoken about her struggles with depression over the years. More recently, Serena Williams has spoken about her battle with postpartum depression after giving birth to her daughter in 2017. She continues to be a voice for other athletes with mental illness by speaking openly on the subject and trying to break down harmful stigmatizations.6th
Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman may have made her way to gold, but from the floor she is struggling with her mental health. In 2018, Raisman was one of many gymnasts who testified against US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for sexual abuse. The abuse led to PTSD at Raiman, but she is now taking steps to prioritize her mental health, especially since she retired.7th
Lindsey Vonn is a highly decorated skier with multiple Olympic medals, but Vonn’s mental health has been an uphill battle. Vonn’s Depression, another Olympic athlete with a mental illness, began when her parents’ relationship broke up in 2002, but she didn’t open up about her problems until a decade later. Vonn saw tremendous improvements after taking depression treatment, but still struggled from time to time.8th
Although we adore them for their physical abilities, professional athletes are not immune to mental illness. If you or someone you know is having trouble, asking for help isn’t a problem. At Vertava Health we have several mental health centers that offer a variety of services to help people manage their symptoms and get ahead.
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