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Young Black athletes are launching a mental health revolution

Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Raven Saunders and others have publicly taken their mental health into their hands in a way never seen before in elite sports.
Image: Naomi Osaka, Sha'Carri Richardson, Noah Lyles and Simone Biles.
Clockwise from top left, Naomi Osaka, Sha'Carri Richardson, Simone Biles and Noah Lyles.Shahrzad Elghanayan / NBC News / Getty; Reuters

Raven Saunders was riding high after the 2016 Rio Olympics. She placed fifth in the women’s shot put, and upon her return, her hometown, Charleston, South Carolina, held a parade celebrating “Raven Saunders Day” in her honor. 

She returned to the University of Mississippi for her senior year, feeling unstoppable, but the high was short-lived. She faced a series of post-Olympics setbacks during the 2017 collegiate season, and placed 10th at the Athletics World Championships that year. 

“In 2018, I had my breakdown,” Saunders said, adding that navigating life as a Black, queer woman only added to the stress. She entered a period of depression, and suicide ideation. 

“I would base my self worth and how good I was as a person on how I was doing in track,” she said. “When I ended up not having a good World Championship meet, it sent me further into that hole. I knew I was drained, but I still tried to push through. But it wasn’t for me; it was for a lot of people I felt like I owed.” 

Saunders, now 25, is part of a generation of elite Black athletes who have taken their mental health into their own hands and spoken openly about their struggles. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, stepped away from the French Open and Wimbledon this year for the sake of her mental health. Superstar gymnast Simone Biles, 24, opened up about seeing a psychologist and taking anxiety medication. Olympic sprinter Noah Lyles, 24, has been a vocal advocate of mental health care, sharing on Twitter that he takes anti-depressants and sees both a sports and a personal therapist. Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Simone Manuel, 24, spoke openly about taking a break after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome this year, as she suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia and loss of appetite. 

Such mental health issues aren’t uncommon among Black athletes. But the willingness to speak so openly about the struggles and publicly advocate for better care is fairly new in the professional sports world, experts say. 

Osaka’s decision to prioritize her mental health spurred criticism from spectators and even tennis legend Billie Jean King. The condemnation highlights just how rare Osaka’s move was for a professional athlete, but it seems young Black athletes are taking control of their mental health and public image in a way never seen before. Taking necessary mental health breaks and sharing them with the world is becoming the norm in sports, and elite Black athletes are leading the charge. 

“Athletes are increasingly taking ownership of their personal narrative and making their own choices about sharing that personal narrative," said LeʼRoy Reese, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “There is now a sense of agency among professional athletes that we have not seen before with regard to their voices.”

That urgent focus on mental wellness was recently thrust back into headlines when Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the women’s 100-meter race at the Olympic trials in June, was barred from competing at the Tokyo Games after testing positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana. She said she had used marijuana to cope with the recent death of her biological mother, which she said sent her into “a state of emotional panic.” 

USA Track and Field vowed in a statement to “work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”

In 2018, DeMar DeRozan, who plays for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, candidly tweeted: “This depression get the best of me … ” He quickly became a vocal mental health advocate, revealing his battle with depression and anxiety. His advocacy, and that of other players, led the NBA to require teams to have at least one full-time licensed mental health professional on staff.

According to Athletes for Hope, an organization that pairs athletes with charitable causes, up to 35 percent of professional athletes will face a mental health crisis. However, major sports organizations have been slow to obtain adequate mental health resources for athletes. Team USA established its “athlete services division” in 2019 to bolster its support services, and athletes can now access mental health resources like therapists, counseling groups and helplines. 

“There has been a benign neglect too often of professional athletes’ physical and mental well-being,” Reese said. Professional leagues “don’t think about how the stress of performing at such a high level impacts an athlete’s quality of life.”

“Very often nothing prepares you to be a professional athlete. You prepare physically, but young professional athletes have not been prepared for the pressures and expectations that come from being thrust into the spotlight.”

Saunders, however, was able to get the help she needed before it was too late. 

By January 2018, Saunders, whose powerful performance and strong demeanor earned her the nickname “Hulk,” was so afflicted by depression and anxiety that she said she considered ending her life by driving off a Mississippi highway. Instead she contacted her therapist and decided to put her athletic life on hold to undergo treatment in a mental health facility. 

Raven Saunders her new mini-documentary, “An Olympic Athlete Takes on Depression.”
Raven Saunders her new mini-documentary, “An Olympic Athlete Takes on Depression.”WETA/Well Beings

“I was hesitant to go at first. It was very taboo because of how strong I’m perceived to be,” she said. “But once I got there, I let everything go. It’s nice when you get to be in a place where you don’t feel so alone anymore.” 

Today, Saunders has no reservations about sharing her story. She said she has several mental health practices in place, like meditation and reading, as she heads to the Tokyo Olympics. She consistently tweets about the importance of mental health and was even featured in a PBS minidocumentary titled “An Olympic Athlete Takes on Depression.” 

It’s worth noting that many athletes who have advocated for mental health care have been women. Over the years, female athletes have increasingly shared their stories of depression and anxiety, even at risk of their careers. WNBA legend Chamique Holdsclaw suffered from depression, endured a nervous breakdown and even a suicide attempt in the early 2000s while playing for the Washington Mystics and the Los Angeles Sparks, she revealed in her 2012 autobiography “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot.” 

She had kept her mental health struggles a secret for years before baring it all in her book about two years after she retired in 2010. “You get labeled as a quitter with mental health issues like mine,” she told The Washington Post. “People would say I was an ‘enigma.’ Or a ‘problem.’ All along I knew that wasn’t me.”

Holdsclaw’s openness serves as an important precedent for female athletes revealing their mental health struggles. The shift comes at a time when women’s athletics are more popular than ever. Athletes like Biles and Serena Williams are hailed as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their sports. Brands and marketers are increasingly investing financially in women’s sports, and global TV and sponsorship revenue for women’s athletics is expected to surpass $1 billion, according to a report from Deloitte.  

“There was this myth that women are not as competitive as men, or their sports aren’t as enjoyable. Then you have female athletes like Naomi Osaka, she’s one of the most high-profile athletes,” said Dr. Caroline M. Brackette, a licensed counselor and professor in Mercer University’s College of Health Professions. She noted that depression and anxiety are some of the most common mental health issues among athletes.

“Traditionally women have been more vocal about self care  … so I’m not surprised you see, just as in society, more women speaking out about mental health and wellness in sports.”

Brackette said the rise in public mental health advocacy among young Black athletes is a reflection of society at large, where stigma surrounding mental health is slowly diminishing. Both Brackette and Reese say social media is only bolstering the change, as athletes can connect with their millions of followers with a simple tweet or Instagram post. 

Whatever the cause of the growing advocacy, Saunders says she’s sure it will continue.

“Looking at people like Naomi and all the other athletes who are talking about it, I feel like it will start a snowball effect,” Saunders said. “The next person will talk about it, then the next person and the next person. And people will go, ‘Well, if the athletes are talking about it, I guess it’s cool for us to start talking about it, too.’

"People will see that it’s not as negative as you’d think. There’s a lot more benefits to being open than we’d like to think.”

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