COLUMN: Olympics puts necessary spotlight on athletes' mental health

Jul 28, 2021

SIMONE Biles’ withdrawal from the individual all-around gymnastics finals and the team finals has put the mental health of athletes once again in the spotlight.

Sadly, the withdrawal of Biles, who is arguably the greatest gymnast of all time, was greeted with jeers by some, with others even claiming she was disloyal to the United States.

I guess those who throw the disloyalty card around have pretty high standards for loyalty, because I personally think that five Olympic golds, one silver, and one bronze and still choosing to suit up for the American team despite being sexually abused by its former team doctor is as loyal as they come.

Of course, this line of thinking stems from the impression that mental health is a non-issue in sports, that athletes have it all figured out, and that our athletic idols don’t have the right to speak up about their issues, lest we consider them weak or judge them.

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Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open was met with the same reactions.

Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Athletes have legal protections for their mental health

People tend to forget that sports is as much mental as it is physical. Just ask our Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz, who had a sports psychologist, Dr. Karen Trinidad, inside Team HD, because she realized the importance of mental toughness and her mental health in getting our country’s first gold.

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Yet, the stigma is real. And it surely doesn’t help.

Thankfully, the Mental Health Act of 2018 seeks to remove this stigma by promoting mental health, enumerating the rights of persons with mental health conditions (called “service users” under the law), and setting the responsibilities of the stakeholders.

Athletes with mental health conditions (AWMHC) can find some protection and solace under the law.

The law enumerates a long menu of rights in Section 5 (which you can access here). The most fundamental, however, is the principle that AWMHC should not be discriminated against and should be free from any form of stigmatization, whether committed by public or private actors.

The inclusion of private actors is important, as it recognizes the role of the private sector in removing the stigma attached to mental health conditions. It also puts the burden on private workplaces (like sports academies or professional teams) and private schools to do what it can to remove the stigma.

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AWMHC also have the right to access evidence-based treatment, health and social services for mental health, mental health services at all levels of the national health care system, and other forms of treatment. Save for a limited number of situations, they also have the right to give informed consent in writing before receiving any treatment or care — which includes the right to withdraw such consent.

Institutions should play their part

AWMHC’s family members, carers, and legal representatives also have rights geared to help AWMHC. These include the right to receive appropriate psychosocial support from the government and even applying for their transfer to an appropriate mental health facility.

For student-athletes with mental health conditions, schools must develop policies and programs for students, educators, and other employees to raise awareness on mental health issues. These programs must also help identify and provide support for students at risk and facilitate access to treatment and support. Finally, educational institutions are also required to have a complement of mental health professionals.

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Academic departments will do well to formulate their own policies and programs for their student-athletes to help them deal with the stress and pressure that are specific to sports.

Coaches, while not specifically mentioned in the law, should at least be aware of mental health issues and be open to the needs of their student-athletes, especially as they are the closest link between the student-athlete and the school.

For professional athletes, employers must also develop appropriate policies and programs on mental health, also to raise awareness and remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions. The policies and programs of these employers, such as PBA and PVL teams, should provide support for its players, especially those they identify as at risk. And good practice dictates that employers should likewise have mental wellness programs for its athletes.

It wouldn’t hurt to have a coach or a staff member well-versed in mental health on its roster as well.

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If there’s anything to learn from Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Hidilyn Diaz, athletes need help too. Let’s remove the stigma. Let’s all do our part. Let’s be better.

Mickey Ingles is a leading sports lawyer working in the law firm of Ingles Laurel Calderon. He wrote the country's first and only book on sports law, Laws for Sports and the Sporty. He also teaches Emerging Issues in Sports Law in the Ateneo Law School, and is the author of Alinam, a fantasy novel published by Summit Media.

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