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Why Athletes Taking A Break For Mental Health Is ‘Revolutionary’

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Trigger Warning: Mentions of Molestation.

Recently, a Japanese player pulled out of the French Open after organisers threatened to expel her for not honouring media commitments. Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion, withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health issues.

Another athlete, Simone Biles, a US gymnast, pulled out of the Olympics earlier this week due to mental health issues. This ignited a cultural and political firestorm on Wednesday after right-wing critics and trolls attacked her for letting down her team and nation.

Her choice to exit the competition came hours after tennis star Osaka, the face of the Tokyo Olympics, failed in the third round of the singles competition. The Japanese favourite, who lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony, also cited the mental toll of her profession as the cause for her early exit.

Naomi Osaka. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I put my mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport, and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles told a media conference. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you are.

Biles touched upon the extra stress brought about by the Tokyo Olympics, which got delayed by a year due to the pandemic and wreaked havoc with training programmes. “It’s been stressful, these Olympic Games. It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year,” she said.

This added pressure is showing even on some of China’s athletes. In the montage of Olympic emotions, it’s not often you see the visuals of a teared up Chinese athlete. It’s rare to see them submit to the pressure; rarer even for them to show it.

However, it happened, of all places, at the shooting range where China’s players have created a reputation of being impenetrable in victory or defeat. But Wang Luyao, a Chinese rifle shooter likened to win a medal, surrendered to the pressure and finished 18th in the 10m air rifle competition.

Consumed in self-guilt, she wrote a short message for her followers: “Sorry everyone, I admit I chickened out.” Wang would not have foretold the storm that the Weibo post would provoke. She got threatened and abused, and finally, the South China Morning Post reported, China censors had to remove dozens of posts and deactivate at least 33 accounts that attacked the athlete.

I have failed, and I will start from the beginning,” Wang wrote again, in a new post, almost apologising for her apology.

Did Wang Need To Apologise?

There is a stigma surrounding the mental health of athletes. Showing emotions in a profession that demands physical strength is difficult.

This is one of the main reason why elite athletes with mental health issues don’t seek the help they need. This finding was published in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine devoted to the topic.

A poor understanding of mental illness, busy schedules, and gender stereotyping also play a part.

Athletes fear, possibly rightly so, that disclosing mental health symptoms or disorders would reduce their chances of maintaining or signing a professional team contract or an advertising campaign,” note the researchers.

Talking about it can help ease this stigma. And significant efforts are needed to overcome stigma and boost mental health literacy among elite athletes.

Coaches could be important agents for supporting positive mental health attitudes within the elite athlete environment, including fostering an environment of mental health treatment-seeking,” they concluded.

US gymnasts were forced to perform even when they were injured, by Larry Nassar. Photo: Larry Nassar at Ingham County Circuit Court on November 22, 2017. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

However, when coaches are like Larry Nassar, it can be for the worse.

Nassar was accused of sexually molesting hundreds of women gymnasts and was given life in prison. Moreover, US gymnasts were forced to perform even when they were injured. This all created a sense of fear and pressure in their minds. They were hushed and were not allowed to talk about this in public.

But, appropriate mechanisms can enable athletes to talk about mental health.

Michael Phelps,  a swimmer with more medals than anyone in Olympic history has spoken candidly for years about his struggles with depression. Longtime NFL receiver Brandon Marshall has gone public with his mental health issues, as has 2012 Olympic silver medalist in high jump Brigetta Barrett.

There are a slew of other issues, such as eating disorders, extreme stress levels, and burnout, that haven’t even been brought to the public’s attention yet.

It Is Not Just Famous Athletes Though!

Neha, 2o, a state-level football player has represented Delhi State U-18 team on several occasions. She feels that it was really brave of Naomi to come up about her mental health concerns so openly and take such a significant step that may have far-reaching consequences for her entire career.

Her decision to withdraw from such a prominent tournament is also ‘revolutionary’ since now, people, board directors and team owners would recognise that a player’s mental health is just as vital as their physical health. Right now, the best thing to do is to let her be, to allow her to heal in her own time, and to give her some space,” Neha said.

She said that she has experienced anxiety off the field. There’s a lot on her mind during pre-season and tournaments. “During that time, my mood swings are intense. The night before matches, I barely get any sleep, and it’s become something of a pre-game ritual for me. Pre-game nervousness is just one of the issues I deal with during tournaments.

She added that she broke down after losing a finals match once, and it was as the team captain. Since she couldn’t handle herself after the struggle through the entire tournament, she stopped playing for 5 months.

I couldn’t get back on the field because I was afraid of the taunts and the comments waiting for me.” – Neha. Representational image.

I couldn’t get back on the field because I was afraid of the taunts and the comments waiting for me. After that burnout, I went through a time of static performance stage where I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to perform better, and it took me about a year to pull up my socks and be myself again.

She also said that she has experienced a few anxiety attacks in the past, which were always dismissed as pre-game nerves.

She noted that everything can influence an athlete’s overall performance, from locker room conversations to the coach’s pep talk to the reaction of their fans and family. “Even the tiniest change can have a tremendous impact, yet most people are unaware of this.

She wanted people to know that it is extremely difficult to perform flawlessly without making any mistakes, and people are quick to criticise when an athlete loses, claiming that the athlete must not be practicing enough or that the athlete lacks talent.

Fans have no idea what it’s like to be under such intense pressure and expectation, so they resort to social media and question the players’ ability, often urging them to retire, which only adds to the player’s anxiety. These insults and comments make it difficult for them to concentrate and focus during regular practice sessions and then eventually in tournaments.

She said what helped her was her team mates. “They knew exactly what I was going through because they’d been there before, and they were there for me no matter what. My parents and coach did assist me. but it wasn’t much help in terms of results. It did take constant talking to peers, teammates, parents, my team coach and manager to help me eventually heal and get back on my feet.

Similarly, Kavya Sawhney, a lawn tennis player at the international level, feels that mental health is a huge aspect in any sport. “There are two sides of it, physical and mental. If you feel great physically but horrible mentally and are struggling emotionally, it’s really hard to focus on one task and be able to play the sport peacefully. Specially for me in tennis if I am not calm and focused, I will make errors early in the game and get frustrated easily.

She too has experienced mental health issues. “There was a low phase in my career where I felt that I wasn’t going to get better and I kept losing a lot of matches, even though they were matches that I could win easily. I realised that what had changed was only my mentality. I stopped believing that I could, lost my confidence and started being hard on myself and eventually started feeling like giving up.

What helped her was meditation. “All I had to do is put in consistent work that would give me the confidence I needed again and I had to start believing in myself again. I started focusing on all my achievements and how far I’ve come and it wasn’t to give up. That worked best for me.

She feels one can be more mindful of mental health by questioning themselves whether they feel okay about something or not and recognise things that could potentially make them lose focus or their peace of mind. “Meditation has always helped me realise these things and helps me focus more on things that bring true purpose to my life.

However, there is still a long way for sports associations to realise this. It will take time but we will get there!

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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