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“Their Mental Health Takes a Hit Every Time”: Measuring the Impact on Athlete Activists

People who don’t feel the effects of racial injustice or discrimination in their daily lives sometimes struggle to understand the impact. But the harm can be severe.

Racial injustice affects people everywhere, including the running community. Instances of racial injustice and racism take many forms, from police killings of Black Americans to racist slurs to unintentional microaggressions. And the effect on mental health can be severe. 

Racial discrimination has been linked to anxiety and suicidality, as well as physical and behavioral health concerns such as cardiovascular problems and poor sleep, says Dr. Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, a psychologist who has studied how discrimination affects mental health. Tran is an associate professor in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology program at Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. 

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Other research has shown that discrimination and other forms of racism can harm socially disadvantaged racial and ethnic populations. 

Racial justice advocates, including athlete activists who demonstrate and speak out publicly, may take on another layer of harm. When someone uses their platform to advocate, “their mental health and well-being take a hit every time,” says Dr. LaKeitha Poole, director of student-athlete mental health at Louisiana State University and owner of a private practice that provides sport psychology and performance services to athletes.

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After two-time Olympian Gwen Berry won gold in the hammer throw at the 2019 Pan American Games and raised her fist on the podium, sponsors dropped her, she got death threats, and people told her to “go back to Africa,” she says. 

“I 100% was affected emotionally. I felt like all eyes were on me, and I was like the rebel,” Berry says. “That was really heavy for me. It made me really anxious. I just felt uneasy.”

When high-profile athletes speak out against systemic oppression, that activism might conflict with observers’ expectations of them, and when that happens, they’re likely to face some blowback, Poole says. For example, Naomi Osaka wore face masks displaying the names of Black Americans killed by police and took steps to protect her mental health, and she was criticized for doing both, Poole says. 

Track and field athletes are not new to activism. From John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus, to Berry and others at the Olympic Trials in June, athletes have demonstrated against racial injustice. At the trials, Berry and Noah Lyles each raised a fist before some of their competitions, and heptathlete and 100m hurdler Taliyah Brooks wore Black Lives Matter patches in some of her events.

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As the Tokyo Olympics kicked off, five countries’ women’s soccer teams took a knee before their matches. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado knelt and raised her fist at the end of her floor routine.

Athletes know that activism carries with it a risk. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta is a member of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, which convinced the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to stop punishing athletes for peaceful demonstrations.   

Bartoletta pointed to Berry as an example. Berry decided the risk was worth it, “knowing full well that all these people would come for her, knowing full well that maybe sponsorship would be difficult or she would get blacklisted,” Bartoletta says. “Why aren’t people paying attention to what she’s willing to lose in order to bring attention to the issue? Why does that not make the issue front and center?” 

Although George Floyd’s murder sparked some efforts to address racial injustice, Berry says she still hasn’t seen enough change since then. “Everything went quiet, because the world is trying to go back to normal,” she says.

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Understanding the Harm

People who don’t feel the effects of racial injustice or discrimination in their daily lives sometimes struggle to understand the impact. But the harm can be severe.

“A pretty normal response to injustice would be to feel some sort of mental stress and maybe physical stress as well,” Tran says. Someone might feel sad, hurt, embarrassed, stressed, scared, or angry—but then worry that their reaction isn’t normal, even though it is, she says. 

People dealing with racial injustice “can develop racial battle fatigue,” Poole says. Critical race theorist William Smith coined the term to describe the cumulative psychological, social, physiological, and emotional effects of racism on racially marginalized groups. “It can beat someone down mentally in unimaginable ways,” Poole says.

Regardless of racial identity, many people feel exhausted by dealing with racial injustice since Floyd was murdered, Poole says. “But for some, that’s their experience every day and has been for their entire lives.” 

Black people in particular have been inundated with instances of racial injustice over the past year or so, Poole says. “This vicarious trauma weighs on the athletic community,” she says.

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Bartoletta says she felt the effects of systemic racism personally, while going through her divorce, but at the same time, she saw it everywhere around her. “I honestly had to just tune out. It didn’t make me ignorant, because I’m definitely well versed and well educated on what is going on in the world, but I could not receive another piece of information during that time.”

Recently, Black women including Sha’Carri Richardson, Brianna McNeal, and two Namibian women have been banned from competing at the Olympics. 

“We are never respected, we are never treated as human beings,” Berry says. “And we have to work twice as hard to even get the opportunity, let alone get into the door of any situation.”

People disagree about whether these women’s punishments amount to racial inequity, but either way, their stories are highly public, and they sometimes have mental health attached to them. In talking about mental health, there may be a fine line between acknowledging potential harm and stigmatizing someone as mentally ill if they show signs of harm. 

To avoid stigmatizing people, more explicit language would be helpful when talking about mental health and mental illness, Poole says. “We can paint a clear picture of the mental health continuum, and we all fall somewhere on that continuum every day,” she says. Someone might be struggling one day, but after addressing a problem, they might be OK the next day. 

As Osaka and Simone Biles have brought the issue of mental health and sports into the spotlight recently, and have been attacked for it, they have sparked conversations about the importance of protecting one’s mental health and how to be supportive to others. 

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Forms of Support

The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice has been a supportive environment for Bartoletta. “The support really was just knowing that there was a place for me to be heard, and without fear of consequences,” she says. “At the same time, it’s exhausting and draining to just keep talking.”

Through its work to protect athletes who demonstrate for social justice, the council made athletes feel supported. “I feel like that support and security are extremely important, because of people and athletes sticking together, to make sure we are all OK, in the field of play or outside of that,” Berry says. 

Both for people in underrepresented or marginalized groups and for people in the dominant majority, deciding when to speak up can be difficult. 

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The downside of speaking up repeatedly is “feeling like you’re pouring out and not getting anything back, which is what this fight largely feels like, because progress is so slow, or you’re seeing people who are standing there, seemingly standing side by side with you, just reluctant to do anything to disrupt the norm,” Bartoletta says.

People directly affected by racial injustice often “take the brunt of teaching the rest of the world how it has negatively impacted them,” Poole says.

“For people of color, I think there’s often questions of: Am I betraying myself, am I betraying my compatriots, am I betraying our society if I don’t speak up?” Tran says. 

“There are going to be times when that social injustice is just too much, and you have to speak up. But there are also times when you need to protect yourself, because these are daily onslaughts for some people,” Tran says. 

When Tran conducts workshops on social justice issues, “sometimes I have to almost give people permission not to fight,” she says. “It’s OK to speak up against injustice, but it’s also OK not to. It’s not always your job, and it’s not always good for your health.” 

Bartoletta agrees. “You can be in the fight and then put down your weapons and go recharge for as long as you need to, and return to the fight, or choose to fight in a different way, in order to take care of yourself—in order to even make it to the next day,” she says. 

People in the dominant majority also struggle with when to speak up. “I have a lot of white students who say, ‘I just don’t know if I should say anything, or if it’s my place to say anything,’” Tran says. “Well, your silence is saying something.”

Being a good ally “might be about you listening, learning, speaking up, checking in, making your own mistakes, and apologizing for those mistakes,” Tran says.  

The listening part is important, Bartoletta says. “When someone who lives a different experience from you tells you about their experience, believe them,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you? Right now, the default setting is denial. And it makes no sense why someone who has not lived my life would deny what I’m sharing with them about my experience.” 

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Allies can support people who are dealing with racial injustice by “using their voice to bring attention to this issue, and having the courage to ask the right questions and to do the work in a way that’s needed, not just the way that’s most comfortable,” Poole says. The work of fighting racial injustice is not going to be over soon, so people in the fight need to have patience to sustain it, she says.

Berry is thinking about the long term. How does she see her role beyond the Tokyo Olympics? “I think about that all the time,” she says. “As far as my activism looking ahead, the socioeconomic indicators for Black communities are getting worse. And we still see no significant changes in policies and laws. I just want to continue to raise awareness.”

When You Need Help

How do you know when you should seek mental health care, or when someone you know should? Some signs are notable changes in personality and in sleeping or eating habits, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and fragility, Poole says. If you’re not able to cope with your normal daily activities, you’re isolating yourself from people who are supportive, or you feel “misaligned with who you know yourself to be,” it might be time to seek help, she says. 

Resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • Association for Applied Sport Psychology

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