Team USA Puts Mental Health First at Beijing Winter Olympics

When star gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from competition during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year, she became sought-after as a mental health speaker, opening up about the struggles that many Olympians face. For the second year, top figure skaters, skiers, and snowboarders in the US have competed while facing a global pandemic.


"The Olympics present particularly unique challenges for elite athletes," Dr. Joshua Norman, a sports psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center said. “With the isolated experience of being at Olympic Village, with having such intense focus on competition … and particularly in today's climate with COVID-19 with the athletes being tested multiple times a day and then they're further isolated out of fear of getting COVID-19, it's a very unique experience that can place significant physical and mental strain on the elite athletes," he continued.


Team USA made it a mission to address and protect the mental health of its more than 200 competitors before the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The USOC’s director of mental health services, Dr. Jessica Bartley, explained that athletes had access to therapists and psychiatrists throughout the Olympic venues, they were able to attend individual/group therapy sessions, and they had access to a crisis hotline.


"The majority of our winter athletes, we actually did some mental health screens around anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleep, alcohol and drug use over the summer," said Bartley. "And then we're going to repeat that. And just trying to keep tabs on them a little bit too."


Dr. Leela Magavi, a psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director with Mindpath Health offered the team some advice. Athletes, for example, can go on walks, write in a journal, or spend time talking to family members instead of training all day. She also suggested that Team USA encourage athletes' openness in sharing their thoughts.


Norman stressed the importance of athletes not only staying on top of current treatments but also being in close contact with their support team for any new or evolving conditions that may affect them. Biles is not the first athlete to raise awareness about mental illness, though. Michael Phelps, the all-time most decorated Olympian, has been open as a mental health speaker about his difficulties with ADHD and depression. According to Dr. Norman, athletes speaking up about mental health issues can ultimately reduce the stigma of mental health and help people understand how common these issues are.


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