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Mental health in the spotlight as athletes speak out

Simone Biles departure from the Olympics made waves
Posted at 5:12 PM, Aug 10, 2021

Sam Cary started as a freshman in one of the biggest games in Iowa women’s soccer history.

“I put a lot of that pressure on myself of I need to do this because this is the position I’m in. So that all really started building in my head, and imposter syndrome, do I really belong here? Is it really, am I really the best choice filling the role on the team? A lot of self-doubt and questioning that I really had to rumble through,” said Cary.

She was the only freshman in a playoff game starting alongside 14 seniors in the Hawkeye women’s winningest season.

“I remember the NCAA game that year. I was like, oh my gosh, if I make a mistake and we lose, I’m the reason, I’m ending these senior’s careers,” she said.

That immense pressure only increases as you progress in a sport. Olympic athletes on the world’s biggest stage are no exception.

“The elite athletes, and some at the very tip-top, have different pressures than other athletes, so it’s just when you start to add up all of the risk factors or all of the different pressures, any human can only take so much. So I think it just understands what that is, that is very different for every athlete, and every person,” said Jessica Bartley is the Director of Mental Health for the US Olympic Committee.

She has been tasked with strengthening the organizations' mental health program.

That includes a hotline, adding mental health staff, expanding education for athletes, and having on-site therapists and counselors for athletes.

“On average, we get about eight calls a week to our team USA mental health support line. We also have athletes reaching out directly. We have coaches reaching out on behalf of athletes,” said Bartley.

The mental health of athletes took center stage over the summer as female superstars Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have notably withdrawn from competition to focus on their mental health.

People on the inside say taking a step back is an efficient way to fight the stigma associated with mental health.

"Breaking down the stigma is starting to just openly reach out for help and openly talk about what’s going on,” said Bartley.

“The fact that an Olympian, someone that people realize as the greatest of all time, can put their mental health first and really just believe that that was the best decision for her is really inspiring,” said Cary.

She hopes that by speaking openly about her journey, she can be an inspiration too.

“I love that my teammates know that I go and I work with a sports psychologist, and that’s great for me, and it’s helped me so much. I feel like if I’m an incoming freshman and I hear a junior now about, oh yeah, I use the sports psych, maybe freshmen may not be as concerned and be like, oh, it’s normal."