Molly Seidel’s Journey To Embracing Imperfect Mental Health Advocacy
For Mental Health Awareness Month, Olympian Molly Seidel partnered with New York Road Runners to share the message that when it comes to mental health, it’s all about progress, not perfection.
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Molly Seidel is a top-rated American distance runner with a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and the American record at the New York City Marathon. While competing at the highest levels of the sport, Seidel has also been candid about her mental health struggles.
Seidel has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders. After a career-defining run at the Tokyo Olympics that catapulted her to new levels of prominence in the running world, she dealt with relapse and was forced to confront the pressures that came with fame and a platform. Since then, Seidel has used her journey to de-stigmatize mental health for other athletes and demonstrate that struggle isn’t the opposite of healing—it’s an integral part of it.
Earlier this month, the 28-year-old Puma-sponsored pro led a New York Road Runners group run called “Open Run for an Open Mind” to share her story and connect with the running community. One of her primary messages was admitting that, while the past year has been challenging, she’s eager to embrace her role as an imperfect advocate for mental health in the running community if it helps others on their journeys.
“It’s been interesting to be seen as an advocate for mental health in sport, especially because a lot of it is stuff I’m actively going through,” says Seidel. “It’s been balancing being able to share the journey while also living it.”
Seidel has only raced once this year—she placed eighth at the Cowtown Half Marathon (1:13:08) in Fort Worth, Texas, in February—but is considered to be one of the top contenders at next February’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and earn the chance to run in the 2024 Paris Olympics. She hasn’t entered a marathon since 2022, which she dropped out of at mile 16 with a hip injury.
“When an athlete embraces perfection, they can let go of what they are ‘supposed’ to be and accept things as they are. They can recognize their flaws as a natural part of being human, not as something wrong with them as an individual which can reduce negative self-talk and improve self-belief,” says Sarah Strong, a licensed clinical social worker and Boulder, Colorado-based therapist who specializes in working with athletes. “They can be more open to celebrating small successes and notice progress along the way to big goals and roll with setbacks when they happen.”
When she first started speaking up about mental health, Seidel encountered negative feedback and harsh comments online, telling her to stay in her lane as an athlete or to stop complaining. While the pushback still hurts, she’s made peace that anyone who challenges the status quo of athletes being portrayed as emotionless automatons is likely to get criticism.
“There are some things that I need to keep in my inner circle,” she admits. “Sharing some of the nitty-gritty details about things invites a high level of scrutiny and backlash, and I realized that OK, the world is not where I’d hoped it would be with being able to talk about mental health. Not everyone is going to be supportive and understanding, and that’s OK.”
Progress, Not Perfection
Mental health is a slippery thing, and working through diagnoses like OCD, ADHD, or an ED are rarely a neat and linear process. Recovery rarely follows the perfect narrative arc that social media and culture crave.
Seidel says things really came to a head after the Tokyo Olympics, and that while she went on a publicity tour of sorts after the race, privately, she was struggling with a major eating disorder relapse and considering going back into treatment.
“It was hard for me to admit, even to myself, that I was struggling,” says Seidel. “Because so much of the messaging around mental health is ‘oh she went through this once and now everything is fixed and everything is OK. I felt like I had to portray this image that everything is OK, even when it very much is not. And that made everything I was going through 10,000 times worse.”
Strong says that cultural expectations that mental health and recovery are linear journeys with definitive destinations can set people back or even prevent athletes from getting help they need in the first place.
“Unmet expectations can lead to negative self-talk and an unhelpful narrative that the athlete themselves is to blame which can exacerbate symptoms,” says Strong. “A sense of pressure or an effort to avoid that disappointment may lead an athlete to force themselves to return to activity or intensity earlier than they should which can jeopardize recovery.”
While there aren’t any definitive studies about the prevalence of relapse in eating disorders—which is difficult to study as many relapses are unreported—there is no definitive consensus about what constitutes a relapse either, which makes gathering data about relapses difficult. Some studies point to an approximate 33 percent rate of relapse. That means about a third of people who seek treatment for an eating disorder will experience a relapse at some point.
“The most important thing related to this question is to normalize that eating disorder recovery is not linear and many people experience ‘lapses’ or ‘relapses’ as they go through their journey of recovery,” says Kara Bazzi, co-founder and Exercise and Sport Program Director of Opal Food and Body in Seattle, Washington. “It’s important to educate both those who are struggling with eating disorders and loved ones, in order to have realistic expectations for recovery and reduce stigma and shame around the recovery process. Understanding the nature of recovery also helps people be more prepared and equipped to resource themselves with the support they need.”
Bazzi says that relapses are normal, and a part of many athlete’s recovery process, and that normalizing and de-stigmatizing them can help many athletes in recovery.
“They are to be expected and help give the person data that there is more recovery work to be done. Often, these increases in thoughts and behaviors come with stressors in someone’s life, both positive or challenging (moving, going off to school, weddings, losing a job, etc.). It is also common to see increases in behaviors when someone is doing some of the deeper work of their recovery, such as addressing childhood trauma,” says Bazzi. “In early recovery, it can be challenging to not lean into the eating disorder to cope with life’s challenges or difficult emotions.”
Cultural changes, like de-stigmatizing fat and body diversity would also create better space for many athletes’ healing.
“Given the weight stigma in our country, and the constant messaging that ‘fat is bad,’ ‘presents a challenging backdrop towards maintaining daily recovery choices,” says Bazzi.
In her experience, Bazzi says the biggest challenge athletes often face is returning to life, sport, and competition.
“Athlete-identified clients are typically highly motivated and approach treatment with gusto. However, with this “can-do” attitude, they often feel compelled to cut their treatment process short, as they are highly motivated to return to life and sport,” says Bazzi. “As a provider, I try to offer a big-picture perspective on how much more time they have to participate and excel in sport, and to give themselves the gift of really devoting this time to recovery. If they allow themselves the time to make more transformational changes (not simply behavioral), their future life in sport will be so much more satisfying. I especially think it’s important to have a period of time that is solid in recovery before returning to competition as that poses an additional stressor of performance outcomes.”
Setting Boundaries and Embracing Humor
One reason Seidel has been able to share more of her story is because of the boundaries she’s been able to put around herself. When she first opened up about her mental health challenges, her DM’s were also flooded with messages from athletes facing similar struggles. While Seidel wanted to help everyone who reached out, the onslaught was overwhelming. She felt cornered between her own struggles and the pressure to appear like a perfect role model for athletes.
She’s since set more robust boundaries around what she shares on social media, and how much she absorbs from the platforms themselves. A Midwesterner at heart, Seidel says that maintaining a good sense of humor has been key in her recovery, and has been able to use social media as a place for levity while navigating tough issues.
“So many people deal with mental health, and I think it helps my approach of seeing this as not always some dark and horrible thing because it’s something I live with every day,” says Seidel, who grew up in Brookfield, Wisconsin. “I’ve lived with it my entire life, and being able to laugh at it, and laugh at myself makes it more approachable, and not quite as horrible and scary.”
Seidel and her sister Isabell started a humorous meme account on Instagram, Sad Girl Track Club with the tongue-in-cheek tagline to “normalize being a lil emotionally unwell.” Memes about depression and dealing with injury adorn jaunty images of intentionally sloppily photoshopped raccoons with slogans like “pain is temporary, a silly finisher’s medal is forever” and “crying is part of my strength routine.”
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Seidel says the biggest thing she’s learned in the process is to really listen to her body, and acknowledge how she’s feeling mentally and emotionally, even if imperfectly.
“I’ve found that being able to give a voice to that pain, acknowledge it, and make peace with it. When I’m running a marathon, I’m not blocking out the pain. You’re definitely feeling it, you’re accepting it and you say, I feel this and I’m going to keep going anyway,” says Seidel. “I think the same thing happens with mental health. It’s like you can be not OK and you can acknowledge that, and you can keep going while giving that healing the space it deserves. You can be struggling and present and enjoying life all at the same time. It’s complicated, but that’s life.”