Olympics and Mental Health

Olympics and Mental Illness – What We Can Learn from Athletes

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The human experience is often defined by successes and failures. Throughout our lives, each of us experience memorable highs and painful lows. For many, the transition from one to the other can be made in a stable, healthy way, without any lingering problems.

However, for those of us who are prone to a clinical mental illness such as depression, anxiety or mania, it is precisely these natural peaks and valleys that can trigger the symptoms of a very real (and sometimes lasting) illness. The peak could be a major professional success, a financial windfall or a personal milestone like a marriage, anniversary or new addition to the family. The valley could be a death in the family, a bankruptcy, a divorce or a loss of a long-term job.

For an Olympic athlete, the very thing they train for – the Games themselves – can produce the loftiest of peaks and the deepest valleys, all in a brutally short span of time. After years of training, an Olympic athlete must amp up the pace in the weeks leading up to the Games, and then produce a near super-human performance of focus and endurance under two weeks of extreme pressure.

Perhaps they fail to reach the podium, which is more often the case. For a select few, their medal dreams are fulfilled. But in either case, the experience comes to a crashing halt the second the Games are finished – and the transition to a more standard pace of life can be treacherous for some.

The term “post-Olympic depression” has been coined, and it holds true for both the winners and the losers of the Games. The challenge for so many is the extreme change from the intensity of the Olympic experience to what feels like a mundane, “normal” life afterwards.

One well-known example of a world-class athlete facing post-Olympic depression is Michael Phelps. Despite being well on his way to be the most successful Olympian of all time, he suffered a serious depression after the 2008 Beijing Games. Many found his symptoms surprising, however his story is a humbling reminder that mental illness can truly affect anyone.

For more detail on this topic, I encourage you to read John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro’s insightful article The Dark Side of Going For Olympic Gold in The Atlantic. This article astutely highlights the challenge that stigma poses for these athletes, who are trained not to show weakness or ask for help.

My purpose in founding Empower Professional Services is to use my experiences to help address the stigma that is holding so many back from seeking help, and learning how to better manage these challenges.

In learning to live well with my own mental illness, bipolar disorder, one of my key strategies has been navigating life’s natural roller coaster of highs and lows. I don’t try to eliminate them altogether – that is a fool’s errand – however I do recognize the threat they present to my wellness.

For example, during a particularly positive time I anticipate and prepare for the eventual sense of disappointment, the “crash,” that follows. I ensure that I maintain a steady sleep schedule, regular exercise and healthy diet. The same strategy helps me to recover when life presents a serious challenge, for example the loss of my Mother and Father-in-Law.

Mental illness, whether it affects an Olympic athlete or the average person, is a serious challenge that requires attention, understanding, dedication and focus to overcome.

But it absolutely can be overcome, if we break free from the stigma and fear surrounding it and ask for help.

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About the Author

Jason Finucan

Jason became a professional inspirational speaker and founded Empower Professional Services to open people’s minds to the reality of stigma. "Having experienced both a major physical and mental illness, I learned the hard way what a negative – and truly unnecessary – force stigma could be. My hope is to help corporations and schools overcome this challenge.” Jason’s unique perspective on mental illness and stigma began with a heart defect, which ultimately required open heart surgery at 12 years old. When he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 26 years old, Jason realized the stark contrast between the two experiences could be traced back to stigma. Ever since, he has focused on inspiring positive change in workplaces and schools across the country through his personal, actionable keynotes and programs on mental illness and stigma – as well as through his thought-provoking blogs.

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