Olympians offer golden insights on the importance of mental health for all

osaka1-172x300biles-300x225The early coverage of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo has been dominated by an unexpected but rising concern — the importance of mental health to our overall wellbeing. Courageous efforts by young women superstars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have helped raise consciousness globally about the importance of this issue, especially for elite competitors.

Their outspoken candor has made refreshingly inarguable the short-hand formula that says: mental health = health. The two are inseparable.

But can this country, with its go-go, get-ahead mentality, also absorb crucial lessons that athletes struggle with, including the power of prioritizing care of oneself, just saying no, and refusing to be forced to perform under professional or personal duress? As the Washington Post reported:

“Biles and her peers are disrupting the narrative of self-sacrifice at all costs learned by women, athletes, and people of color, said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, the author of Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women. ‘The experience of black women being in pain that’s unacknowledged is a common one,’ said Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. ‘The pain is there despite still performing with excellence. The fact that they can name it and attend to it is liberating people from carrying it in secret.’”

Removing the stigma of mental health care and mental wellness, of course, is unfinished business for all too many in this country, experts say. This has been underscored by the blowback that Biles, Osaka, and others — like basketball star Kevin Love — have experienced when sharing their struggles.

Still, it can be huge for athletes, with all their adoration and influence, to speak openly about stress and excess pressure that produces jarring phenomena that sports fans suddenly have become more familiar with — afflictions like the “yips” in golf or the risky “twisties” in gymnastics.

Medicine could learn healing lessons

It would be no small feat if the field of health care itself took to heart the mental health ideas spilling from sports these days. As a recent study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, reported about doctors’ unbearable stress these days:

“Burnout affects approximately one-half of physicians in practice. Burnout results in medical errors, lower quality of care, higher costs, and overall worse outcomes; the impact of burnout on the physician workforce is substantial. Burnout is a system problem, not an individual disease and must be addressed with systematic solutions.”

The study also found this:

“The burned-out physician ‘is angry, irritable, impatient, has increased absenteeism, decreased productivity and decreased quality of care’ … The greatest incidence of burnout (50%) was among physicians 45-54 years old, the age group in which work productivity should peak and practices should be economically stable.”

Researchers found an alarming 14% of doctors surveyed in 2019 “reporting suicidal thoughts. Of those experiencing suicidal thoughts, only one-third sought treatment.” Other investigators found in 2018 that:

“One doctor commits suicide in the U.S. every day — the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the number of doctor suicides — 28 to 40 per 100,000 —is more than twice that of the general population.”

The despondency of doctors has direct and too often tragic consequences not only for them and their loved ones but also their patients, researchers have found, writing:

“Burnout is associated with an increased risk of major medical errors. A recent meta-analysis of 47 studies involving more than 42,000 physicians found that physician burnout doubled the risk of adverse patient safety incidents and led to poorer overall quality of care and decreased patient satisfaction. Physicians reporting burnout symptoms work fewer hours and leave clinical medicine at a higher rate than do those not affected. Burnout among primary care physicians also increases turnover, and therefore costs. Physician burnout and the resultant decreased productivity may exacerbate the previously predicted shortfall of 45,000 to 90,000 physicians in the United States by 2025.”

Just a reminder: Medical errors, in the time before the coronavirus pandemic, claimed the lives of roughly 685 Americans per day more people than died of respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. That estimate came from a team of researchers led by a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. It meant that medical errors ranked as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and I find it tragic that, with so many excellent doctors out there, a poor performing few cause so much damage to the ill and injured and their loved ones. Contemporary medicine is awash with money these days, and doctors are under terrible pressure to maximize profits for their increasingly corporatized practices and the hospitals, clinics, and other institutions in which they toil.

Mental health and self-care are crucial for all of us

Still, if they feel unwell — physically or mentally — they should take time for themselves and with loved ones, foregoing treating patients, especially realizing they may not be in tip-top shape to undertake complex, strenuous medical procedures and to make difficult decisions that can be life changing or even fatal to people who have entrusted their health and lives to them.

Ordinary folks, too, should see the examples that elite athletes have offered: If they feel poorly — if they are mentally or physically unwell — they should consider taking the day or more off. It may not be easy. Our country lacks supportive time-off allowances. It can be difficult to find solid mental health care, with treatment options and providers sadly lacking.

But, please, do not drive or undertake taxing activities while ill, mentally or physically, and especially if you may be further impaired if you are taking prescription medications or intoxicating substances to deal with your condition. We have a lot of work to do to reach Olympian heights in ensuring that health care — mental or physical — is a right for all and not a privilege in this country, the wealthiest in the world.

Photo credits: Olympic stars gymnast Simone Biles (above, left)  @creative commons, Agência Brasil Fotografias, and tennis player Naomi Osaka (above, right) @creative commons Andrew Henkelman
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