I’m all ears at a round table discussion with Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Western and Southern Open (Photo Credit W&S Open)
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — There’s an illness lurking among us that’s just as debilitating and deadly as the Coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19 and all its variants, however, this ailment has been around since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, we’ve been hesitant to even acknowledge that it exists. We’ve buried it, blocked it out, and barricaded it behind closed doors in hopes that it’ll just go away.
Until now, that is.
With Simone Biles exiting the team competition in the Tokyo Olympics in order to “protect her mind,” perhaps the importance of mental health awareness will finally get the attention it rightly deserves. After all, if one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time—on arguably the biggest stage in sports—admits to needing some emotional help, then maybe the rest of the world will finally start listening.
Biles isn’t alone. Earlier this year, four-time tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a standoff about her refusal to speak with media during press conferences. The Japanese American tennis icon admitted that she suffered from long bouts of depression and tried to explain how she was struggling in coping with all the stresses of stardom.
Even before Biles and Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his battles with anxiety and depression. After retiring from active competition, the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games—winner of twenty-eight medals across five Olympics—has since become a huge mental health advocate. And yet, despite the tireless efforts of his foundation to trumpet the cause, nobody seems to have truly gotten his message either.
“We’re human beings,” Phelps poignantly stated the other night when asked about the circumstances surrounding Biles. “Nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters.”
A little closer to home, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari also addressed the fragile emotional state of his team earlier this summer. The pandemic, together with the unspeakably tragic deaths of not one but two of their teammates, had Coach Cal on heightened alert regarding his players’ mental health.
“I’m not an expert on why it would be rising,” Calipari answered, when asked about the skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people. “This pandemic rocked everybody…We had players last year meeting with some psychologists. We did…It’s overwhelming…We just went through Ben [Jordan] passing away, and then Terrence [Clarke]. You throw that onto the plate of these kids. And that’s why I was doing as many individuals [workout sessions] as I could do. At the end of the day, I’m not a—quote—professional. Sometimes that needs to be involved in this.”
Hang on. Before you say this issue is only about spoiled athletes going soft, you better think again. Depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders are ubiquitous—whether we’re famous celebrities or just “ordinary Joes” trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at the top of our game or struggling to make ends meet. These conditions are insidious, they’re pervasive, always prowling around looking to devour you when you least expect it.
I know. My wife has battled severe depression over the past decade. https://huangswhinings.com/2017/04/11/in-sickness-and-in-health/ Two of my best friends have been afflicted by it, to the point of debilitation. https://huangswhinings.com/2018/10/24/it-could-happen-to-anyone/ At its worst, dealing with mood swings and psychotic rants has been a living hell for everyone involved. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Even during periods of recovery, the dark clouds of worry and despair never fully go away.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16.2 million people in the United States will have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. That translates to a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorders of 16.9 percent among adults. That’s more than one in six of us. Not only that, but the biggest cause of disability in the worldwide workforce also happens to be depression related. We’re not talking about calling in sick due to a bad back, the flu, or the far-reaching effects of hypertension or diabetes. Nope—we’re talking mental health issues, period.
“The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those [difficult] times,” Phelps emphasized. “It was hard for me to ask for help.”
And therein lies the danger from all of these mood disorders. It’s hard to ask for help. Because of that reluctance to reach out, those afflicted are often at high risk of suicide. Tragically, fifteen percent of those individuals living with recurrent depressive disorder will subsequently die by suicide. That’s way too many. In fact, it’s heartbreakingly unacceptable. Why the heck are people so reluctant to seek help when needed?
One word, pure and simple: STIGMA! Unlike other common physical illnesses—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—mental health disorders are buried in bias. They aren’t your typical “casserole illnesses.” In other words, when you’re recovering from a broken leg, or an emergency appendectomy, or even cancer chemotherapy, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are quick to stop by with a casserole to comfort you.
Not so with mood disorders. There’s a stigma attached—some sort of guilt, embarrassment, or shame—as if you’re walking around with a big scarlet letter painted on your forehead. No one knows what to say or do about it. No one wants to admit that they’re suffering from it. All they know is that others who haven’t experienced it are understandably clueless. It’s not a condition that you can just easily “snap out of.”
So, what can we do to help? The most important thing we can do is to STOP THE STIGMA! Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and all the various other co-occurring mental health conditions are not radically different than normal physical ailments of the body such as hypertension or diabetes. The only major distinction is that these disorders affect the person’s brain rather than their pancreas.
The sad reality is that many of our friends and loved ones suffer needlessly (and often silently) from these relentless brain diseases. During those instances, compassion and empathy are key. It’s up to us to first acknowledge their illness and then encourage them—as Coach Cal said—to seek professional help as needed.
For many, recovery may signal a long and arduous road ahead. All too often, however, people never even begin the journey. Counseling and therapy are excellent starting points. Medications—although not foolproof—can frequently work wonders. Later on, through continued public advocacy through organizations like NAMI, we can hopefully move towards getting everybody the proper help that they so desperately need.
For now, do your part to stop the stigma. Let’s all become mental health advocates. Show compassion. Be empathetic. Make a difference. Help a friend. Save a life.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, author, and editor-in-chief of www.JustTheCats.com. He currently teaches the NAMI Family-to-Family course to family members with a loved one suffering from mental illness. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.