Mental health has become less of a taboo topic and it could be thanks, in part, to athletes like Simone Biles and Mikaela Shiffrin who are sharing their stories.
Biles, as a seven-time Olympic medalist, shocked the world when she dropped out of competition for part of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Later, she explained that it was partly because of the death of her aunt earlier that week and her inability to focus on the competition, as Deseret News reported.
“My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win,” Biles said per the New York Post. “It wasn’t easy pulling out of all those competitions.”
Biles supported Shiffrin, an Olympic skier who was ridiculed online for her disappointing performance in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, according to ESPN.
Shiffrin had struggled with mental health since her father died in 2020 unexpectedly from a fall. She said that she questioned whether she still wanted to ski in a world without her dad.
Eventually, she decided to get back on her skis and competed in the 2022 World Cup, six weeks into the season.
In the middle of the season, in February, she also competed in the 2022 Olympics. She didn’t make it to the gate once during her individual runs, which was discouraging.
After her performance at the 2022 Olympics, she sought help through grief counseling over the loss of her father.
Shiffrin finished the World Cup season with her fourth World Cup overall title, in the most “Shiffrin way possible,” as described by Team USA.
“I feel a mix of motivation and also just general fatigue,” Shiffrin told NBC Sports. “This has not been a very energizing season,” she said. “I need to kind of reset a little bit. Then start to build back from the ground up because it was something I probably needed in the middle of the season, but never actually got the chance.”
This lack of time to reset is identified by the American College of Sports Medicine as one of the reasons professional athletes are more prone to mental illness than adults that are not professional athletes. The college released a statement on athletes’ mental illness that said that “limited privacy, inadequate recovery time and limited control or independence may also add to the stress of a professional or elite athlete.”
About 35% of elite athletes, like Biles and Shiffrin, suffer from some type of mental illness, compared to 1 in 5 adults outside of the professional athletic world, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
With the weight of high expectations demanded by their profession and their name known by the public, professional athletes have the opportunity for the world to listen to their stories.
Shiffrin and Biles have each played a part to normalize discussion about mental health.
“A catalyst is one or two or three athletes saying something about it,” Shiffrin told ESPN. “Trying to have enough courage to be honest about how they feel in the toughest moments where mostly you want to run away and hide, and you certainly don’t want to share your vulnerability.”