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As a psychologist and former collegiate elite athlete, Mehgan Devine, PsyD, is keenly aware of the mental stress high-performing athletes face. Here, she talks about Simone Biles, and her decision to pull out of the Tokyo events to prioritize her mental health and the impact her decision will hopefully have on all of us.
What sport did you play and at what level?I played Division I volleyball at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. When my collegiate career was complete, I was invited on an International tryout tour for professional volleyball career development in Europe. This was an amazing experience and an honor to be included in such a high-level competition. There were a few reasons why I couldn't move forward with that path after the tour, one of them being a reoccurring back injury. I continued down an academic path instead.
What was your reaction when you learned that Simone Biles was withdrawing from some events?As a psychologist, my reaction was to see it as a very positive and courageous step for her to take. I was glad for her that she felt supported to the degree that she could trust that voicing her needs would be heard and respected. No one person can be tasked with carrying so much pressure consistently without it affecting them now and again.
The weight of that type of pressure can only be relieved when the surrounding support network allows for it to happen; even better if that support network encourages decisions that allow self-care care to be at the forefront.As a former athlete, my reaction included a sense of happiness for the progress that athletics has made in allowing athletes to own and control their own experiences, rather than their performances being subjected to the expectations of others.
This has pushed into the spotlight how we define success. Is it winning and breaking records for the entertainment of viewers? Or does it include honoring an athlete's hard work and dedication while also recognizing they must listen to the body they've worked so hard to train? I also feel this was an important moment to highlight the very essence of teamwork. A team's purpose is for other members to step in when someone needs to step back and the success of a team is akin to a dance that is constantly being navigated as to what's going to work best in the moment.
Why do you think it’s difficult for high-performing athletes to admit their vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to mental health? Up until recently, I think speaking up about mental health issues has been difficult for many people, but especially for high-performing athletes since historically, vulnerabilities have often been viewed as weakness in someone who has trained for years to be at the top of their game. There is still a long way to go, but there is a culture shift that is allowing mental health issues to be more visible and accepted, and also not seen as a weakness but as a normal part of the human condition that needs attention and compassion just as any other malady that might arise.
There is also an invisibility to mental health struggles that require us to believe and trust in another's reported internal experience. If someone doesn't feel safe that their vulnerabilities will be accepted as real and cared for, then there is an urge to keep it in to avoid feeling shame, dismissed, or invalidated. I think the platform for people to speak out about their psychological struggles is growing and the more we see recognizable figures being transparent, the more comfortable we will be in acknowledging and accepting that mental health issues are normal and have well-researched routes of treatment.
What message(s) can we apply to our own lives from Simone Biles’ decision?One of the most important things we can apply to our own lives from Simone's decision is how important it is to be able to recognize when things feel out of balance in our lives, and that it's ok to shift gears in order to recalibrate the system in which we operate. We often forget how closely the mind and body are connected and how much they influence one another.
When we are able to identify when things are out of sync, we are more likely to give ourselves permission to take steps toward recovering that balance instead of trying to just "push through," which can cause further mental health struggles down the road. Learning to listen to our internal state of balance is a process, but necessary in eliminating the self-doubt that keeps many of us from speaking our needs and taking action toward mental health.
In recent years, many elite athletes have opened up about their struggles with anxiety and depression, including champion swimmer Michael Phelps. How has their openness changed the stigma around anyone seeking help? When highly visible personalities are open and transparent about psychological struggles, it can provide relief to those who have been suffering in silence. Public acknowledgment of mental health issues provides a space for many people to relate to and opens up a viable path for treatment and recovery. In these public statements and actions, mental health issues are normalized and the route of speaking one's truth without fear of judgment is modeled.
The message of choosing self-care is conveyed instead of pushing through the situation at the expense of mental and possibly physical health.