The Cost of Gold: The Mental Health Of Olympic Athletes

Success isn’t easy. If there’s anything we’ve learned in hearing the stories of the Olympic athletes as we peel back the curtain on their private life, it’s that while their physical health may be in top form, their mental health often suffers. In the HBO documentary “The Weight Of Gold,” released about this time last year, athletes speak out about the challenges they face as they chase the podium and attempt to live up to the images of glory that we paint them in. 

We are so proud of our athletes as they take the world stage to showcase their skill and determination, and we wonder what it would be like to be in their shoes, but how familiar are we really with the cost of gold? What do we know of the pressures, sacrifices, and internal battles of the heroes of the athletic world?

Eyes On The Prize

Life has shown us all that reaching goals takes determination and endurance. Staying focused on long-term results takes a level of willpower that most people struggle with. It takes dedication to a dream, a certain level of commitment, and singular focus for the long term. However, this can be the creator of our own demise. Forgetting or neglecting ourselves in order to reach the next goal is how the pursuit of our dreams can become counterproductive and even damaging to our happiness.

On To The Next

By continuously pushing oneself to the next level, checking off one goal only to double down on the next – it becomes easy to lose your sense of self. Olympic athletes have trained in the most accelerated and challenging circumstances to reach the skill level needed to compete in that arena. Some of these athletes have been working their entire life towards that goal of gold. As these serious athletes progress, competition becomes the main focus of their lives. Winning comes before family, friends, school, or fun. For the duration of their lifetime, they may have worked toward what amounts to a competition that lasts minutes or even mere seconds.

Pushed To The Max

The cost to the body in times of serious training is almost unbelievable. Yet, when you consider the significant pressure and heightened focus on such a serious goal, it feels like a given. Not only are these athletes operating at the extremes of physical performance, we expect them to. We expect them to give of themselves, to trade their blood, sweat, and tears for the honor of wearing our colors as the rest of the world watches.

Not only is the physical body pushed to and sometimes beyond its max, but mental health is also thoroughly taxed. This slew of mental health issues these athletes face ranges from burnout and substance abuse to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Triggers that onset these various mental health issues are often highly varied. Some studies have pointed to a range of contributing factors from poor sleep to premature retirement due to injury or extenuating circumstances. 

Triggers of mental health issues in these athletes include:

  • Diet restrictions
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Increased amounts of travel
  • Restrictive schedule
  • Lack of personal time
  • Physical and mental burnout
  • Internal and external pressure to perform and win
  • Shame of loss or injury
  • Isolation from family or the pressure of navigating challenging roles

“While there isn’t any evidence to suggest that mental illness is more prevalent in elite athletes than the general population, it’s important to approach these problems in athletes, bearing in mind the special situation they’re in, and the big life stresses they face,” says International Olympic Committee Medical and Scientific Director, Dr. Richard Budgett

While science may not show an increased prevalence of mental illnesses in professional elite athletes, perhaps within our request to be great and represent their country well, they also hear the mandate to not show weakness. 

When It Gets Serious

The cost of gold could literally be a life. The mental crisis in the world today has led to increased instances of addiction and suicide in all facets and industries, and competitive sports competitions like the Olympics are no exception. Many athletes who don’t know how to cope with their emotions in healthy or helpful ways turn to substances to help them forget, or believe that suicide might be the answer. 

Being aware of triggers, being in tune with yourself and a system of support, and knowing how to ask for help is key to dealing with any mental health situation, athlete or not. When you can identify and deal with symptoms of mental health illnesses before it ensnares you in addiction, not only will the future be better, but the present can be too.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, The Haven can help you find your way back to feeling normal. Our team strives to build patients’ confidence to succeed and make the positive changes needed to enhance their quality of life.

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