Building Trust Is The Foundation Of Mental Health Efforts, USOPC Officials Say

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Flag bearers Tyler Carter and Danelle Umstead lead Team USA out during the Opening Ceremony at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 4, 2022 in Beijing.


A short word with layered meanings. Dr. Jessica Bartley, the director of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s mental health services, wants to make trust a priority in everything her department offers for Team USA athletes.
Bartley, along with the other members of the USOPC’s Mental Health Task Force, freely acknowledge their attempts to help all athletes improve their mental health will not be realized unless trust is present.
“We need to show them why we are worthy of being trusted by them — trust is earned, never just given,” Bartley said. “I want to bring transparency right now. I want us to be showing, proving, the ways we are there for our athletes, starting with asking them what their needs are and how we best can be there for them.”
The challenge of providing a comprehensive and consistent spectrum of mental health services for Team USA is significant. Athletes can range from young teens into middle age. They have different genders and gender identities, races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, life experiences, sports, value systems and, of course, mental health needs. They can also be training and competing anywhere in the world.
Assessing elite athlete needs for mental health also comes in knowing the culture of their sport. Some sports have elements of disordered eating built in over the years, for example, while anger and controlled rage can be used in competitions.
The shifting lines of healthy and unhealthy, anxiety in high-profile situations like the Olympic and Paralympics, and simply being a complex human being in many dimensions are always in play. Having a variety of ways to improve mental health — from apps to telehealth to in-person counseling — can bridge the gaps that existed, Bartley and her colleagues hope.
The extra layer is the trust that has been broken with some Team USA athletes, due to the different forms of abuse stemming from their sport participation and their ongoing trauma. 
“We have to be honest with one another, which means talking about what we hope to do, what are doing at this point, and name the things we have not done and fallen short in the past,” said Dr. Kensa Gunter, a member of the USOPC’s Mental Health Task Force. “You can’t paint the rose-colored picture and expect people to accept you as honest. We are here to be real and gain their trust by what we do.”

Team USA athletes pose with their Olympic medals during the Closing Ceremony at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 8, 2021 in Tokyo.


Bartley attended the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the mission of getting to know as many members of Team USA as possible in a friendly, non-strictly clinical way. She wanted to develop relationships, chat about where they were and, most importantly, let them know she sincerely wants to be there for them.
“It was more like me being, ‘Hey, hi, nice to meet you, let’s start a conversation about you, what things are like, and we go from there,’ ” she said. “It worked really well, because as athletes started hearing about what was happening, they were seeking me out for a chat. So that is how we build the trust. One person at a time.”
Society’s view on mental health is changing. Bartley and the task force members want Team USA athletes to understand their mental health is taken as seriously as their readiness to succeed in competition.
“Historically, we said the words ‘mental illness,’ without seeing the whole picture: mental health is part of mental wellness, which is part of our overall wellness as humans. It cannot be separated,” said Gunter. “The perception that you only can work on your mental health if you are in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’ is wrong. You’re not weak or crazy or can’t handle things. Those are all stereotypical beliefs, misguided views. We are moving beyond that, but we still need to articulate the message clearly, so the athletic community will seek the mental health care that is available.”
Many athletes rely on sports psychology professionals to improve performance. The next step, according to Gunter, is gaining the trust for overall mental health care to be integrated into organizations, teams and sports in the same way as they do for conditioning, nutrition, wellness and strength training.
“We will move from being reactive into being proactive in helping our athletes,” she said. 
Dr. William Parham, another task force member, summarizes the shift he wants to see quite simply: “Person over performance.”
He continued, “We all carry baggage. We know athletes carry significant amounts of baggage. That does not mean they are not elite or high performing, they’re just able to do what they do despite that. But what if they have a place to lay that burden down, heal and gain strength in new ways? Do you know how much more genius would flow, as athletes, but as people, spouses, parents, businesspeople?
“But we can only get to the place of healing when the athletes are able to trust us, and what is happening. We will get there.”

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 since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.