Starting Conversations on Mental HealthMay 08, 2023
Many well known athletes today are becoming advocates for mental health and helping us all take the issue more seriously. Star athletes like Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and so many more are starting to shift the conversation around mental health.
But just hearing that other star athletes are talking about mental health doesn’t always make it easier for us to talk about it amongst ourselves. Breaking down the stigma around mental health is much easier said than done, but we can all play a part.
We recently hosted an event in partnership with The Hidden Opponent where we talked about the power of stories and sharing with others when it comes to mental health. Our speakers shared some important insights for all of us to learn from.
So let’s start with talking about our own mental health. If we can focus on ourselves and how to share what we are going through, we can create a more open and accepting environment with the people around us.
Getting comfortable with ourselves.
The first step to having conversations is to start with ourselves. Leeann Passaro of The Hidden Opponent talked about the importance of how we speak to ourselves. “Step one - before you do anything, is to recognize how you are speaking to yourself. Step two is realizing how it makes you feel, and step three is to let it go,” she shared.
It’s so important for us to be comfortable and confident in ourselves and what we are experiencing. This is not an easy process - like everything else, it takes hard work to accept what we are feeling and feel comfortable enough to share it with others. We can’t be honest with others if we are not first honest with ourselves.
Embracing that we aren’t perfect and can’t please everyone.
When we are ready to share our story, we may be afraid of what others will think. It’s natural to be concerned about what others will say, and the stigma around mental health is still extremely pervasive in our society.
It’s helpful to understand from the beginning of this process that we are going to make mistakes and that no one is perfect - perfection is not possible.
“You don’t have to be perfect. Allow yourself to make mistakes and figure out who you are,” said Josh Copeland, former college football player and Founder of Learning 2 Cope LLC. “Just because you make a mistake, that doesn’t make you a mistake.”
Nina Kucheran, swimmer at the University of Florida, shared that she’s learned she will never please everyone and there will always be someone who doesn’t like what she’s doing.
“Anytime you’re sharing on a platform of any size, there are going to be people who agree and don’t agree with what you’re doing,” she explains. “But the reality is that the only person who really knows what you are going through mental health wise is you.”
Abdelrahman Elaraby, Egyptian National Team Swimmer, explained how he looks at what people may say about him speaking out about his own mental health. “Someone’s opinion on your story does NOT define your story.”
When we get ready to speak out and get vulnerable, we should work to build the courage and confidence to accept that not everyone will agree with what we share.
Opening up our own experiences - when we’re ready.
When we’re comfortable, we can start by being honest and sharing what we are going through with our own mental health and what has been challenging for us. This may seem simple, but we can do a lot by just being honest and vulnerable with others. At the very least, we can show those around us that they are not alone and that there are people that they can relate to.
“The culture [around mental health] is changing - it starts with sharing - opening up about your day. That can open someone else up to be vulnerable back to you,” shared Natalie Allport, Cross Fit Athlete and Former Team Canada Snowboarder.
It’s not always so easy to get to this step, to stand up and share your truth. It can be HARD. So it’s important that we don’t force ourselves to share more than we’re ready for or to share anything at all if it isn’t comfortable. But remember, it may just take you speaking your truth to give everyone else permission to do so too.
“It takes letting people in from a place of courage, trust and radical honesty,” said Billy Garton, Jr., former pro soccer player and Founder of the You Choose Movement. “It takes a leader to go first and crack the code for everybody else. Most of us are thinking it but it takes a leader to speak it.”
Echoing Billy, Leeann Passaro shared the importance of continuing to work at being vulnerable and creating conversations.
“Vulnerability is like a muscle, you have to continue to work it.”
Getting comfortable with ourselves and speaking out is just the beginning. What comes next is equally important: listening and holding space for others to share with us.
Showing others we’re willing to have these conversations.
There are a lot of important discussions that can be had around mental health, but it starts with letting others around us realize that they can come to us to talk about it. We need to show others that we are open to having that conversation.
“Check in on people. They may not open up to you right then and there but you may plant a seed that helps them down the line,” shared Nina Kucheran.
It could be as simple as telling someone, “if you ever want to talk, I’m here”. Or we could volunteer to lead a group discussion around mental health resources with our team.
We might not change the culture of our team or community overnight, but we can start to make small changes and impact.
Listening without judgment.
Active listening is so important. When we listen to our friends, teammates or family members as they are vulnerable with us, we are helping them. It’s important not to judge or try to solve their problems. It’s also important not to add our opinions to what they are feeling and experiencing unless they specifically ask for advice.
We need to simply listen and acknowledge what they are feeling. Don’t try to minimize what they are going through, but let them know that we understand. A simple and effective response could be “I hear you and I am here for you.”
We are not there to judge that feeling, their challenge or their struggle and we aren’t going to make that feeling go away. Listening is our way of acknowledging that they have the right to feel that way and that they are heard. That can make all the difference.
Asking for help when we need it.
Mental health is just like physical health. It requires regular practice and focus to continue to care for ourselves. A lot is still being uncovered about the effects of mental health and diagnosis, and how it can impact us every day.
It’s important to create an environment with our teammates, friends and family where people feel comfortable asking for help, and asking questions (including ourselves!). If we are uncomfortable with a situation or are struggling with something, we need to speak up. People can’t read our minds, especially if we are outwardly showing that everything is fine.
“You have a voice, use it. No one else is going to use your voice but you,” says Abdelrahman Elaraby.
It’s great that the national conversation around mental health has been so strong and forceful and that things are starting to shift for the better. Today, we have more resources and support around mental health than ever before. But there is still a long way to go.
By talking about our mental health and creating space for these conversations, we can all work to break down the stigma that says we need to keep our issues in the dark.
You can watch our entire conversation from “Tackling Our Hidden Opponent: Mental Health in Athletics” here. Thank you to our speakers who shared their perspectives and The Hidden Opponent for their partnership.