As the 2022 Olympics and Paralympics wind down in Beijing and athletes return home, the glow of their accomplishments is sure to last for a while. But what happens after the glow dies down - after the hometown celebrations, victory parties, and media interviews subside? Holly Brooks, a well-known therapist to Olympic athletes, says, "A lot of athletes fall into a deep depression after the Olympics… (They) need a lot of support, a lot of people reminding them of their worth beyond just their athletic achievements and results."
In this article, we look at the mental health issues that returning Olympians often face, and what can be done to address this.
Post-competition mental health issues are not uncommon
It is estimated that one-third of elite athletes around the world experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In recent years, athletes like Simone Biles, Chloe Kim, and Michael Phelps have helped raise awareness and normalize mental health issues by talking openly about their own anxiety and depression. At the same time, the number of research studies around this topic has increased - confirming the high incidence of mental health issues in this group.
Studies have found there are several reasons that athletes may experience post-competition depression. Some athletes are dealing with disappointment over performances that didn't seem to measure up. But even for those who walk away with gold, that post-competition, somewhat “lost” feeling of “what do I focus all my energy and attention on now?” can loom large. One athlete said, “When you get home it’s really lonely… It’s quite depressing, and it is a little bit overwhelming, starting from square one again.”
Sports psychologist and director of the Performance Psychology Center at the University of Michigan, Scott Goldman, explains it this way: “This ninety-mile-per-hour ride comes to a screeching halt the second the Olympics are over. …This emotional drop is not that different from the drops we all feel after major milestones, such as getting married or giving birth…. But in the case of Olympic athletes, some find themselves at such a loss they can’t stop the slide—and wind up in clinical depression.”
What can be done to address mental health issues faced by athletes?
Some experts suggest that athletes should have a plan in place for what to do after the excitement of the competition ends - from going on vacation to beginning a degree, a new job, or even a new athletic season. The key may be in an athlete’s willingness to build and maintain an identity off the playing field - and this may be where these other life goals come in.
Support is also critical: The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee formed a mental health task force in 2020 and among other things, made sure Olympic athletes now have access to a dedicated team of counselors and other mental health resources, such as wellness and meditation apps and support groups - during and after the games.
One athlete summarized the challenge this way: "People are finally recognizing that these athletes are not superhuman robots like everyone thinks they are. It's like, 'Oh they're a normal person who has their own mental health issues.'"
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