From the Editor
This is the Olympics edition of the Reading of the Week.
We will remember Rio for much – the big smile on Penny Oleksiak face when she won gold; the grit of the Canadian women’s soccer team; the achievements of American Michael Phelps.
For me, there is also the amazing story of swimmer Allison Schmitt. I’ll remember her not just as an Olympian who competed. That’s memorable of course. But she is also memorable for being an athlete willing to talk about her struggles with mental illness.
For the record, Schmitt won gold and silver in the pool in Rio.
Depression and Gold Medals
“Out of the Blue”
Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN.com, 29 July 2016
Allison Schmitt surfaced from sleep in the middle of the night thinking it might snow on her three-hour drive to central Pennsylvania.
She curled her 6-foot-1 body into a ball and wept. Her thoughts cascaded, frantic: I can’t do this anymore. I just don’t even want to be here anymore.
If it snowed, she could drift over the lane line and people would think she’d had an accident on her way to see a college hockey game. No one would guess what had gripped her in the moment. She couldn’t grasp it herself. She was an Olympic swimming champion, barely treading water.
It was the first weekend of January 2015. She hadn’t wanted to come back to Baltimore after the holidays. But here she was, training and using muscle memory to arrange her face into the smile everyone expected of her.
So opens an essay by sports writer Bonnie D. Ford that discusses the story of swimmer Allison Schmitt. The Olympian has had a remarkable journey. Rio is her third Summer Games.
But she has also been touched by depression. After London, she was deep in depression and suicidal.
Last week, in an interview with NBC’s Today, she described the challenges of daily life:
When I woke up in the morning, I would look forward to going back to bed. As soon as my alarm went off, I knew that it’s time for practice. But my thoughts were, ‘Okay, when can I get back into bed.’
The essay discusses her troubles, but also her recovery – with the help of family and friends, including Michael Phelps (who she considers a brother).
It also discusses the shock she experienced after the death of her cousin (another athlete) by suicide.
It is in part because of the death of her cousin that she took her own illness more seriously – and helped her make the decision to speak out about her mental health problems.
Allison gave her initial interviews about depression to The Associated Press and The Baltimore Sun within a few weeks. She spoke about it openly, confidently, when reporters brought it up at the Pan American Games that summer in Toronto, where she won gold.
Olympic athletes are often eager to discuss their training and wins. Not so many, however, are willing to talk about their mental illness. As Ford notes:
Studies on depression in elite and college athletes don’t necessarily show a higher prevalence than in the general population, but evidence has emerged that athletes as a group are more reluctant to seek advice or treatment.
Schmitt is courageous, yes, but not alone. More and more people are speaking out about mental health problems. A paper in this month’s Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reminds of how needed this is. Patten et al. find that many people with mental disorders – 30% to 40% – perceive stigma. In other words, despite our progress, stigma still exists. That finding underscores the importance of people like Schmitt coming forward and discussing their experiences.
To further break down stigma, we need people to talk more about their experiences – our neighbours, our friends, our Olympians.
You can find the Patten et al. paper here:
I commented on it in a Reading when it was published online first.
(Note that past Readings are archived on my site.)
Finally, for more on Olympic athletes and mental illness, Clara Hughes’ autobiography is terrific. Canada’s six-time Olympic medalist is raw and moving in her account of her depression.
The book is available at bookstores across the country, including Caversham Booksellers.
Reading of the Week. Every week I pick articles and papers from the world of Psychiatry.