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In First 18 Months, USOPC Mental Health Task Force Has Made Strides For Team USA Athletes

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Team USA athletes pose for a group photo in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 3, 2022 in Washington, DC.

 

It was a complex equation that demanded untangling for a clear and effective solution: how to better help Team USA’s athletes with their diverse mental health needs.
The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee understood there was a need to refine and improve its programs, and it was time to make some bold changes.
The Mental Health Task Force officially launched in April 2020, just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. The work did not stop. In September of that year, Dr. Jessica Bartley was hired to be the USOPC’s first director of mental health services.
She has been busy trying to assess, and now change, how the USOPC provides mental health services for all athletes in all sports. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Bartley is hopeful Team USA athletes are feeling better supported.
“I have really leaned on the task force’s knowledge and their recommendations: to have more mental health resources and have an action plan of how we will enact these pieces,” Bartley, a sports psychologist, said. “COVID threw some wrenches into how we wanted to move forward, but we have been able to accomplish a lot during a stressful time and during two Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“It’s a work in progress, but I really feel excited about the direction we are going in. We are working hard to make things stronger for everybody.”
The slew of changes is long. Here are some highlights over the last 18 months: 

  • A 60-page emergency action plan, to guide best practices for assisting athletes in mental health crises, was developed and released. The range in elite athletes — from young teens to adults in their 40s, accounting for different genders and races, and spread around the world — was considered. Research-based pieces on the needs of high-profile athletes, plus those dealing with depression, anxiety, suicidal inclinations and eating disorders, are important parts of the first-ever action plan, according to Bartley.
  • The development of stronger USOPC mental health web presence, https://www.teamusa.org/mentalhealth, to provide easier access to info, resources and discussion. A mental health app and telehealth option were also added. The third-party mental health resources maintain athlete anonymity, allowing them to use the service — and the USOPC to pay for it — without any revealing of info. Some athletes have been concerned that seeking mental health care could jeopardize spots on Team USA or resources. The blind-use policy ensures the USOPC does not know, and the athlete is protected.

A view of the moguls course at Genting Snow Park on Jan. 30, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.

 

  • The creation the first mental health registry of 200 professionals available to Team USA. All mental health professionals have at least five years of experience working with elite athletes.
  • Bartley and her colleagues were at the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games, hoping to establish contact with Team USA in a more casual, get-to-know you way to establish trust. They hung out in the athlete lounge areas, with an open invitation for anybody to come for conversation.
  • And most recently, the department of psychological services was brought together with mental health under the sports medicine banner. Mental health services won’t be segmented by performance vs. other medical issues.

“It’s a lot, and it’s only the start of what we want to do,” Bartley said. “I see us building the momentum to make the impact we need to have; it’s one step at a time, looking into each part of what we do, seeing what it does and asking the questions of how we can make it better and what the athletes need.”


Dr. Kensa Gunter, a member of the task force, said she is encouraged by the steps forward in the mental health space for USOPC athletes.


“I see the biggest factor component being how we offer the services for the people we are trying to serve,” Gunter, a clinical and sports psychologist, said. “The athletes need to know that what we are offering matches what they need. Everybody has different needs, and it is important we let them speak, in a safe space, so we hear their voices. For me, it boils down to the resources we have being real, relevant and relatable. Having a continuum of services, from self-guided ones to more in-person, means athletes can find their best space within what we do. We want our service to be about wellness — less reactive — and more proactive.”


Members of the task force and Bartley explained their desire to shift the overall mental health conversation into it being another aspect of an athlete’s overall wellbeing. Some athletes Bartley met at the Games said they didn’t think they met the crisis threshold to seek mental health services — even though they admitted to having some challenges that needed to be addressed.


Task force member Dr. William Parham has worked with the National Basketball Players Association in the mental health space. He said a major point of emphasis needs to be changing the mindset on how the athletic community — from coaches to athletes — view the value of mental health.


“I want us to get to a place where mental health and wellness is like working out, training, nutrition in the sports space, it’s part of the training system, it’s part of life,” Parham, a professor of professional counseling in the Loyola Marymount University School of Education, said. “My guess is when that happens, people will see an exponential increase in realized talent, team chemistry, team competition and performance, and in turn, then increases in the purchase of season tickets and paraphernalia by fans. If you invest in mental health and wellness of athletes — everybody wins.


“We need to reverse the narrative: mental health is wealth. I feel the USOPC is positioned to move forward for its athletes. They’re assembled on the right path.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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