The NAN project knows that in a society where depression and suicide are still heavily stigmatized, fostering honest discussion about mental health can literally save a life. When our Peer Mentors open up about their journey back from a dark place, we send the message that no one who struggles is alone, and that recovery is possible.
These are sentiments of HBO’s new documentary The Weight of Gold, a must-watch for sports fans and mental health advocates alike. The film investigates the connection between elite athleticism and psychological struggle, drawing on the experience of several Olympic competitors. There is an assumption that their global fame and incredible skill mean that these superstar athletes are confident, fulfilled, and happy — Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time and the film’s narrator, says this is part of what makes mental illness so difficult for his peers to talk about. The hour-long feature invites us to consider how Olympians are uniquely at risk for suicide, and how we can do better by them and those close to us who may be struggling.
The athletes featured in HBO’s film all agreed that training for the Olympics requires a powerful, sometimes toxic hyper-focus on sport.
“I didn’t develop outside interests,” recalls Jeremy Bloom, two-time Olympian and world-champion American skier. “I had a singular focus on my sport.”
“I thought of myself as just a swimmer, not a human being,” Phelps adds. He had no confidence in himself outside of his sport.
The athletes agreed that when it came to training, all other things were secondary: hobbies, education, and even relationships. We know that lacking a support system is a major risk factor when an individual is considering taking their life.
Adding to this harmful emotional environment is the incredible criticism Olympic athletes face, from the media, from fans, and from themselves.
“I was driven by [thinking I was] inadequate,” Bloom remembers. “Every day, I wasn’t good enough.”
Lolo Jones, an American track and field athlete, can relate. The moment she hit a hurdle at her first Olympic competition was immortalized on global television and haunted her for years.
“I had no one to help me through that,” she laments.
There is an immense pressure for Olympic athletes not only to perform physically, but to appear in control of their emotions. Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic figure skating silver medalist, recounts how she fell twice in the first thirty seconds of her performance. It was difficult for her to hold herself together, but she felt it was her responsibility.
“You need to show the world that you are strong,” Cohen explains. “And so if you were to say, like, oh, I have mental issues, like, that just cracks the facade of trying to show the world that you’re impervious.”
We know that too many struggling individuals are feigning wellness to preserve their careers, their relationships, their image – surely there is even more pressure to do so when one is broadcast live to every corner of the world.
If the heat of the Olympic spotlight was not enough to test one’s emotional regulation, a new challenge looms when athletes return home.
“After every Olympics, win or lose, I’ve felt a dramatic emptiness,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White explains. “Just because your whole world is built around this one day… after the Olympics, there’s this incredible crash.” After competing, White reckoned with near-unbearable feelings of isolation and aimlessness.
Many athletes struggle so intensely with post-Olympic depression that they turn to reckless and self-destructive behavior, and some consider taking their lives. Phelps recalls thinking there was only one way to ease his pain after his second DUI arrest in 2014. He didn’t realize at the time that he wasn’t the only retired Olympian who considered suicide.
Jeremy Bloom recalls the time Jeret “Speedy” Peterson confided in him that most days he did not want to be alive.
“I thought of Speedy as someone who is so happy and so successful,” Bloom said.
Peterson ended his life in 2011. He is far from the only Olympian to complete suicide – Phelps calls it an “epidemic.”
One might ask why these struggling athletes did not seek help. Phelps attributes this partially to the Olympians’ conviction that they can make themselves unbeatable if they just work at it. The stigma that prevents so many struggling individuals from admitting to their pain also weighs heavily on superstars like Phelps and his peers.
Though such an immensely important issue calls for more than a single hour-long feature, The Weight of Gold is an honest, tender, informative step in the right direction. The conversation is not over: Phelps urges the Olympic institution to take action; he encourages athletes to speak up and seek help; and he teaches viewers that anyone, no matter how talented, famous, or wealthy, can struggle with their mental health.
“It’s as much a part of my life as being a husband or a father,” Phelps says of his healing.
If record gold-medal-winning Olympian Michael Phelps can recognize his depression and embrace professional help, let us all feel empowered to seek what we need to heal, too.