Opening up to mental health – with Biles and other stars from sports and showbiz

PTI | New Delhi | Updated: 04-08-2021 13:53 IST | Created: 04-08-2021 13:25 IST
Opening up to mental health – with Biles and other stars from sports and showbiz
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The world watched from their homes as American artistic gymnast Simone Biles faltered on her vault landing at the Tokyo Olympics and decided to pull out of the all-around competition, an event she hadn't lost once since 2013.

What may have been the end of an era started a conversation instead. From the Olympics arena to millions of homes, the issue of mental health, skulking around the corners of high-wired professions such as sports and showbiz, and a lived issue for countless others balancing everyday stresses was back at the center stage of discussion.

This attention is more than welcome, said psychologists and other mental health experts as well as those battling the demons of depression and anxiety.

''For anyone saying I quit. I didn't quit... my mind & body are simply not in sync,'' Biles had written on Instagram.

''I don't think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface,'' she added. ''Nor do I have to explain why I put my health first. Physical health is mental health.'' When influential people such as Biles, one of the world's biggest sports stars, talk with such candidness, it validates the existence of mental health as an issue in the general public, said Delhi-based development sector consultant Bhawna Khattar.

''Where it helps is to generate conversations, for instance, when Sushant's case happened or when a Deepika Padukone talks about it," Khattar, who has been taking professional help for her mental health issues for the last two years, told PTI.

While actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found hanging in his Mumbai home last year, Padukone, among India's biggest stars, has spoken in public about her depression.

Both sports and films are professions with high visibility that demand steep thresholds of unrelenting stress and dedication.

As important as it is for athletes to prepare themselves for perfection, mental health professionals believe the true form of a sportsperson lies not just in pushing a little bit more but also in knowing when it is ok to quit.

"Awareness is really important, and knowing when to stop is the most important thing. Many don't know when to stop, and many feel it is not right to stop. It takes awareness and courage to quit at a highly competitive level," sports and exercise psychologist Keerthana Swaminathan told PTI.

In her view, the taboo around mental health hinders a conversation from happening in India.

"You'll find foreign players talking about mental health care. In India, they use words as stress because people are not taught that these things exist. In the US, they welcomed her (Biles) decision to quit mid-way, they said it's fine. With us, it's always about 'what would people say' (if you quit). The taboo around mental health is very much there in our society," Swaminathan said.

Biles, who has frequently championed the cause of mental health during her career, adds to the small yet strong lineup of sportspersons who have talked about the pressure of a sporting arena.

Earlier this year, Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open after refusing to attend press conferences as she gets "huge waves of anxiety" before speaking to the media.

American former swimming superstar Michael Phelps too spoke of the "weight of gold" in his documentary of the same name. The most successful Olympian of all time has 28 Olympic medals, including 23 gold, to his name.

Closer home, shooter, Abhinav Bindra has also talked about encountering mental health issues right after winning the 10m air rifle gold medal at the Beijing Games in 2008.

''It's ironic my biggest mental crisis in life came when I actually succeeded. A lot of people talked about dealing with failure, but for me, dealing with success was probably the hardest time in my life," Bindra had said.

Shuttler PV Sindhu, cricketers Virat Kohli and Harmanpreet Kaur, footballers Gourmangi Singh and Sunil Chhetri are among the other Indian sportspersons who have frequently addressed mental health issues. According to sports and performance psychologist Nanaki J Chadha, there has been a "paradigm shift" when it comes to the awareness of mental health importance in sports.

"...Like any physical injury, athletes are realizing that mental health concerns can also be crippling for their performance," Chadha said.

"In India, we do not give equal importance to sport psychology, as we do to other performance domains such as the physical, technical, and tactical aspects. There is a stark disparity," she said.

While the recent incidents have yet again opened up conversations on and around mental wellness, they are far from enough in the Indian context as the stigma persists.

The ramifications of ignored mental health have manifested themselves in another high-stress profession, the film industry, too often to be ignored.

The likes of actor-director Guru Dutt, actor Jiah Khan, Sushant Rajput, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and comedian-actor Robin Williams gave up on life working in an industry known to be harsh and demanding. The list is as varied as it is long. Equally, several who battled their spectrum of mental health problems came outworn but victorious.

Among those who braved mental health, illnesses are Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Manisha Koirala, Randeep Hooda, and Shaheen Bhatt.

After Padukone first opened up about her depression in 2015, she formed The Live Love Laugh Foundation, an NGO that deals with mental health issues. Ever since the "Padmaavat" actress has taken every public opportunity to speak about mental health issues.

Swaminathan feels that such conversation and "coming out" of influential figures inspire others at every level to speak up.

"When one person comes out and says 'hey, I am having this issue, the other person doesn't feel embarrassed about sharing their stories too. All of us are going through these issues, anxiety, and everything. And when they speak about it, it makes it easier for us to talk about it," she added.

In a welcome move and a pointer that the issue may finally be on its way to getting the importance it needs, the Delhi High Court on Monday sought a response from the Delhi government and the Institute Of Human Behaviour & Allied Sciences on a petition concerning the mental health of students in schools and colleges.

In her petition, 17-year-old student Devina Singh has pressed for the implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 at educational institutions.

Relying on the National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, Singh has contended that children and adolescents are vulnerable to mental disorders as the healthcare system does not prioritize mental health.

Singh has claimed that stress, anxiety, fear, panic, depression, insomnia, isolation, disconnectedness, loneliness, trauma, lack of self-confidence, positivity and resilience, etc are issues that are widely prevalent in students but are left unattended.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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