Friday, June 14, 2024

Inside The U.S. Olympic’s Mental Health Initiatives For Their Athletes

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There have been an increasing number of athletes speaking out about their mental health struggles, and it’s no surprise that elite athletes competing at the Olympic level face a tremendous amount of pressure. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has been working tirelessly leading up to the Paris 2024 games to ensure that athletes have a surplus of mental health resources. Through the USOPC’s extensive mental health program and offerings, around 1,200 athletes received mental health services in 2023 from the USOPC, with the youngest athlete being age 12 and the oldest being age 54.

Jessica Bartley, PsyD, LCSW, CMPC, Senior Director of Psychologic Services at the USOPC, provides insight on the several mental health programs and resources that the USOPC makes available to its athletes. Bartley, an athlete, received two master’s degrees in social work and sports psychology and then went on to complete a doctorate in clinical psychology. In September 2020, she was tasked with building out the mental health and performance program at the USOPC. “Currently, there are 14 full-time mental health staff employed by the USOPC, all of whom are licensed in mental health and certified in mental performance,” said Bartley.

In addition to the full-time mental health staff that the USOPC has available to its athletes, Bartley also helped develop a mental health registry in 2020, which lists providers across the country, who are available to see Olympic athletes, should they choose to seek care outside of the USOPC’s available providers. Between the mental health and mental performance registry, there are around 300 vetted providers available. Should an athlete seek mental health services, there are several ways in which they can request to be connected. There is a 24/7 phone line staffed specifically for mental health and performance concerns, in addition to an email address, and a referral link which is available through a QR code in the various Olympic training centers. The hotline number has not only been distributed to athletes but also to coaches and staff, so they can assist in a crisis, if needed.

Bartley notes that some of the most common mental health challenges that their athletes face include sleep concerns, disordered eating, and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). In response to these growing concerns, the USOPC has built out programming and education to address these issues and provide support to the athletes. This programming includes individual and group options, in addition to support groups. USOPC’s psychological services also includes a robust program for injured athletes, as this is a high-stress time from both a physical and mental standpoint. “One of our most popular programs was the de-selection program, focusing on athletes that have been cut and how to transition out,” says Bartley.

When asked about the role of education when addressing athlete mental health at the USOPC, Bartley says, “my goal is to have a normal conversation about mental health and destigmatize it”. She is proud to report that the psychological services department has received a lot of positive feedback surrounding what they have been able to provide and design for their athletes. “We’ve been applauded for the diversity of options,” says Bartley.

Looking ahead to the Paris games this summer, the USOPC will place a large emphasis on sleep hygiene and the accessibility of mental health resources and support. Bartley has already traveled to Paris to ensure that the appropriate mental health resources are in place and to finalize the mental health emergency action plans. “We’ve spoken to the organizing committees and the US Embassy, as well as visited local hospitals”, says Bartley. The USOPC is truly setting a high standard for athlete mental health support through a diverse set of offerings and resources.

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