As 2021 comes to a close, I’m finding it hard to believe that the pandemic still looms large in our country. Predictions abound that January will be challenging, thanks to the Omicron variant and some less-than-cautious behavior during the holidays.
Still, what looms large in my mind is not coronavirus but our country’s mental health. It’s been a tough year (nearly two). And the holiday season has its way of making a bad situation worse.
Along with the usual stressors — lack of time, financial pressures, family dynamics — some of us are worried about our health this year, or the health of loved ones. Or we feel sad about holiday plans gone awry. The stress can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
There’s no question, however: America’s mental health crisis began long before the pandemic. But the struggle is greater today. It’s touching just about everyone.
So, kudos to the athletes who gave a voice — and a face — to the issue of mental health this year.
In May, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns about her mental well-being. Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, sparred with tournament officials over her media obligations. After she was fined $15,000 for skipping a news conference, Osaka made a public admission about her struggle with depression and anxiety. It began with her victory over Serena Williams, the crowd favorite, at the 2018 U.S. Open.
In an Instagram post, Osaka said, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
Osaka’s action was unprecedented in professional tennis. She walked away from a high-profile event mid-tournament, for a reason other than a physical injury. Popular and social media quickly ignited, with an outpouring of both praise and scorn for Osaka from around the globe.
Then in July, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics, where she had been favored to win five gold medals. Biles collected a silver medal in the team competition and a bronze for the balance beam before announcing her struggle with “the twisties,” a frightening mental hiccup that can cause a gymnast to lose track of where they are while in midair.
Not only was Biles dealing with the pressures of being a high-profile athlete on a high-profile stage, she was still grappling with the aftereffects of yearslong sexual abuse by her former USA Gymnastics doctor. In September, Biles appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the abuse.
Through it all, Biles showed incredible strength, beyond the demands of her sport. Time magazine named Biles its 2021 Athlete of the Year, calling her the greatest gymnast of all time. She was also hailed for bringing the issue of mental health to the forefront.
Along with Osaka and Biles, other athletes have stepped forward to discuss their own mental health battles. It’s triggered an important and overdue shift in the narrative around mental health in sports. Similarly, conversations about mental health are under way in schools and in workplaces around the country, as they look for ways to respond to the negative impacts of the pandemic.
It’s progress to be sure, but as a society, we are still uncomfortable with talking about mental health issues. The silence has led to stigma: People with mental illness are often marginalized or discriminated against, due to a lack of understanding or fear (or both). So, it’s easy enough to understand why people don’t seek treatment for mental illness. They worry about being labeled or treated differently, and the consequences that could have on their lives.
But really, what’s the difference between diabetes and depression? We don’t think less of a person because they’re diabetic; why would we think less of a person who’s depressed?
With so many people struggling, it’s time to treat matters of physical and mental health with equal importance. After all, they are two halves of a whole person. We must begin to talk about mental health out in the open, without judgment — and without worry, if you’re the person who’s suffering.
Osaka and Biles were courageous in their outspokenness. Let’s step up our own game. It could turn out to be the best outcome of this pandemic.
If you’re in need of mental health resources — for you, a family member, or friend — contact 2-1-1 San Diego (211sandiego.org).
Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group working to create solutions to challenging issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn about NCRC’s programming, visit ncrconline.com.