One of my favorite aspects of watching the Olympics is the personal stories about the athletes. It is almost as if we are watching stories of competition for mental health.
The reports are often stories of the perseverance and resilience necessary to overcome obstacles in order for one's athletic skills to flourish, or continue to flourish. We find out who helped the Olympians along the way, not only coaches, but parents and even grandparents—like the grandparents who stepped up to raise our gymnast star, Simone Biles, when her mother had to battle substance abuse.
Allison Schmitt won five medals at the Olympics in London, but eventually spiraled into what sounds like a clinical depression. She reportedly started to see a psychologist, not a sports psychologist, but a psychotherapist.
Around the same time, someone close to the family committed suicide. The suicide seemed to be a further wake-up call for Allison to start reaching out to others for help. One was Michael Phelps, the unprecedented Olympic gold medal winner in swimming. He had been a longtime friend of hers. He, too, had suffered with depression and alcohol problems, but got treatment and has said that he now has a new-found maturity.
Allison recovered. She also became the captain and leader of our women’s 2016 Olympic swim team, where she is devoted to helping and leading her teammates. Both Allison Schmitt and Michael Phelps now seem to recognize the importance of supportive relationships in the quest to win medals. Such is the secret of life, as Freud once wrote: being successful at love and work.
People who inspire
These are the kinds of stories that can educate the public about what leads to mental health and what can help overcome mental illness. It is something to be shared with our patients. Imagine replaying this story, or something like it, in your waiting rooms. Maybe also have copies of the two memoirs on recovering from her depression by Mariel Hemingway: “Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family,” and “Invisible Girl.” Perhaps consider a newsletter that, with the documented permission of the patients, shares their success stories. Such biblio-therapy can supplement our traditional treatments in a cost-effective way when resources are limited for financial reasons.
These are also stories that can inspire the staff, which is important given our epidemic rates of burnout, as well as higher than usual rates of depression and addiction. Psychiatrists have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. Without necessary prevention and treatment, suicide can triumph over success. We need to find ways to replenish and build resilience, as well as to have a home life to supplement one’s work life. Administrators need to put staff well-being as a high priority.
Who knows? Maybe someday we can dream big, like many Olympic athletes have done and host the Olympics of Mental Health. The competition could be about who overcame mental challenges and disorders to recover and succeed in life, and who helped them to do so. Wouldn't that be inspirational and stigma reducing?
In the meanwhile, enjoy the Olympic personal stories to come as much as the competition.