As of 2019, statistics show that 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness, which ranges from commonly seen depressive and anxiety disorders to more serious mental illness, such as bipolar-related disorders and psychosis. Considering that over 332 million people live in the U.S., it is inevitable that mental illness will personally impact anyone around us. Well-known, famous individuals are not immune.

The recent announcements of famed stars gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka regarding their personal struggles with mental health are a reflection of these statistics. Famous people coming out publicly with their experience with mental health is not a novel experiencewe’ve heard similar messages from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and singer/artist Demi Lovato about their struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, respectively.

Their announcements are groundbreakingwhat it says to our country is that mental illness does not discriminate across gender or race; it can impact any of us.

However, Biles’ and Osaka’s recent announcements seem to imply a slightly different message. Both athletes have not only publicly announced that they are personally dealing with mental health issues, but they have made the undoubtedly tough decision to step away from their careers as performers to prioritize their mental health needs above their careers. And it needs to be underscored that they are coming forward with prioritizing their mental health as women of color. They are literallyand no pun intendedchanging the game.

Their announcements are groundbreaking. What it says to our country is that mental illness does not discriminate across gender or race; it can impact any of us, and it is just as important, if not more so, as having a flourishing career. Success is defined not only as being driven and at the top of your profession but equally as having stable emotional well-being.

Biles and Osaka are playing a major role in shattering the stigma attached to mental health. Their actions demonstrate that it is important to put their emotional needs above all else. The days of silently struggling with mental illness in order to perform and avoid appearing broken or as a disappointment are over.

Many people who are not as famous struggle with mental illness every day, and they reach a point (or are informed by mental health professionals or loved ones) at which they make a decision that putting their mental health needs first simply outweighs the other priorities they have in their lives. Statistics have long revealed that while people of color struggle with mental illness at higher rates than those who are not of color, they seek mental health treatment at disparately lower rates than Caucasian people.

The public decisions of these two extraordinary athletes to prioritize their mental health needs gives validation to those who may still be struggling in silence.

The public decisions of these two extraordinary athletes to prioritize their mental health needs gives validation to those who may still be struggling in silence. These women have the power to influence someone’s decision to seek help.

Their announcements say what the year 2020 has told us loud and clearwe are all prone to struggles with mental illness, and the decision to make taking care of our mental health a top priority equals courage, strength, emotional wellness and success.

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Updated November 1, 2021

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About the author

Dr. Desreen Dudley, Psy.D.

Dr. Desreen N. Dudley, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 10 years of experience treating individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness. She is a full-time clinical psychologist treating adults in a community healthcare outpatient setting. She was hired by Teladoc Health in 2016 as a behavioral health quality consultant, and in her capacity, she serves as a mental health provider of therapeutic services to members using the platform as well as a member of the quality management team. 

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