Like many, I’ve been following the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in amazement as the tremendous athletes take the stage and compete. I’m in awe of their strength, beauty, and talent. Nevertheless, conversations around the Olympics are different this year as Simone Biles withdrew from most of the events (though she won bronze in the balance beam final).1 The pressure to be perfect and the demoralizing reality of her skills being undervalued2 led Biles to make the courageous decision to put her mental health first. We have all witnessed her courage and strength in countless competitions, including the Olympics, and now her bravery is apparent through her decision to focus on self-care and mental health. This news has spurred conversations about mental health. Former Olympic medalist, Michael Phelps, responded to the situation by sharing his struggles and his motto: “It’s OK to not be OK.”3
For most of us, putting our mental health first can be extremely challenging. Compared to Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, I’m just an average person, and I know I struggle! Personally, I coach myself with affirmations like: you got this, or it will pass, or just keep swimming. There are still times I feel like I just don’t have it, and some circumstances are not going to pass.
Growing up, my family didn’t talk about mental health, social problems, or other similar issues. I had a single mother who carried the weight of raising three children, one with a disability. I only saw her as a strong woman carrying the load of ten people. When things get rough, my self-talk is influenced by that image of my mother pushing through and doing what she needed to do to move forward. Of course, this directly impacts how I live my life and look at mental health.
This year, we have been discussing race, culture, and differences more than ever before. Mental health is also a more common topic of conversation. How does our race, culture, gender, and overall identity factor into our mental health? Do our experiences mold our views and our mindsets? Does it affect how we internalize the need for help?
The National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) asserts that our “identity is largely informed by internalized values, beliefs, and attitudes that we receive from our communities (families, schools, religious institutions, etc.).”4 Social constructs, lived experiences, and other factors might influence you to view seeking mental health care in a positive or negative light. Some cultures encourage seeking professional help while others believe it is better to keep personal situations within the family or community. Honestly, next-door neighbors can live beside each other for a lifetime and have very different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. The way we all process various life situations can be radically different.
Nearly one in four adults will struggle with a mental health issue during their lifetime. We can all benefit from considering how we would respond if we, or someone we know, experienced a mental health issue. Being aware, looking for the signs, and creating an action plan are the first vital steps in prioritizing personal health. You don’t have to be an Olympian to be brave and break down mental health stigma. We can all start by learning and being open about how culture can impact mental health. For more information, check out the NAMI Blog. Additional blogs and resources are available on the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) website.
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