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Mental Health is more important than you think; Just ask a Brain Injury Survivor

Tokyo 2020

Every Olympic event is stressful, for the athletes, coaches, training staff, and the families. However, this year is particularly, mentally draining. The preparation for the 2020 Tokyo games came to a standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing many athletes to be forced to put their training on hold and find creative ways to stay in shape. This freeze in daily routines wasn't only experienced by athletes. The world shut down, and this kind of “world” is very familiar for people with brain injuries.

Mental Health Impact 2020

Daily schedules were impacted by the implementation of health and safety measures, and our mental health took a big blow. Similarly, to what happens when you experience a brain injury, we were estranged from our family and friends, while being deprived of most social interaction. In 2020 there was a major rise in mental health concerns seen across the world, the United States was no exception (Panchal et al., 2021). The top 3 increases being:

  1. Four in 10 adults in the U.S reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder; a 4x increase from only 1 in 10 adults reporting these symptoms in 2019.

  2. In July 2020, it was also found that adults were reporting negative impacts on their mental health and well-being caused by the pandemic. Areas included:

    1. Negative impacts on sleep

    2. Eating

    3. An increase in alcohol consumption and/or substance use

    4. A worsening of chronic conditions.

  3. Mothers were particularly affected mentally due to the stresses caused by school closures and lack of childcare.

(Panchal et al., 2021)

These statistics are daunting, and they should be a wake up call for all of us. But these statistics are all too familiar for people with brain injuries.
Being Resilient

Seeking care and mental health resources is a true sign of resilience. However, so few individuals can build up the strength to do so because of the stigma seen surrounding mental health illness. Athletes face many barriers to admitting to their struggle because of the immense pressure that accompanies being a sports icon. They are constantly under the public eye, always encouraged to keep a calm and collected attitude.

On top of this consistent pressure to perform, this year Olympic athletes had to find ways to work out at home, just like the rest of us. Some found themselves running laps down the halls of their condos, others began squatting with the weight of their significant other on their shoulders and others developed conditioning workouts with random household objects (Shulman, 2020). We applaud the innovativeness of these athletes and the general public as a whole, but this is the daily routine for someone with a brain injury. Their condition often interferes with “normal exercise”, and the ability to complete a single sit up may require up to 8x the energy for someone recovering from a brain injury. Another example may be that people with brain injuries can only walk or jog at night because the sun impacts their condition so much that it is debilitating. Innovative, home-grown “exercises” are key to a person with a brain injury physical success. This is the definition of resilient athletics.

Triathlete Lasse Lührs performs dry swimming training on beer crates in Wesseling.

Olympic Trials

Finding new ways to train wasn’t as simple for some athletes. Across the world athletes missed out on qualifying for their countries' Olympic teams because their preparation simply wasn’t enough. A few examples are; Nathan Adrian an American swimmer was sidelined because of surgery, Laurie Herandez an American gymnast is still recovering from an injury, and Kerri Walsh Jennings an American beach volleyball player was eliminated during the qualifying round for the games (Ekert, 2021). Pre-qualifier challenges were not the only upsets, athletes were removed during the games as COVID-19 continued to spread within the Olympic village.

Mental Drain of Professional Sports Mirrors the Mental Drain of Brain Injury Survivors.

Unstable environments paired with the widespread drive amongst individuals to ‘become something’ has unintentionally resulted in burnout being glorified. It is not uncommon to have heard tales of perseverance and the successful route it creates for youngsters. For this reason, taking on more than one can handle, despite the mental drain it causes, is viewed as ‘role model-like’ and ‘worthy of praise’. The same can be described by people with brain injuries. Their environments are anything but stable, and while they may not have tens of thousands of fans watching their every move, they have the same feelings of pressure from their families and friends expecting them to “be their old self”. This desire and demand to be the person they were pre-injury is also intensified by the very person [brain injury survivor]. These pressures are hauntingly familiar for both brain injury survivors and elite athletes.

Olympic Level Mental Strain

The Olympics are showcasing the mental drain athletes face and the public’s brutal scrutiny of their errors and decisions. Similar to the experiences of brain injury survivors, athletes strive to maintain the perfect balance between their personal life, professional career and side projects. However, both of these groups [brain injury survivors and Olympians] are expected to “put-on” a good face, and get through it, all the while their mental hardships are growing exponentially. As we witnessed undeniably the most famous public mental health challenge with Simone Biles at this year's Olympics, perhaps it is time for the general public to recognize the similarities between people with brain injuries and elite Olympic athletes; it is time to shift our thinking.

Simone Biles, holder of 31 Olympic and World championship medals, expressed a mental taxing situation that she had to overcome as a result of the pressure she encountered. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles decided to withdraw from individual all-around competition to nurture and stabilize her current mental state. Biles had qualified to compete in all six of the women’s gymnastics finals-- individual all-around, team, balance beam, vault, uneven bars and floor. If all went well, she could have become the first woman since 1968 to win consecutive titles. Mid-way through her competition, however, she decided to prioritize her deteriorating mental state and withdraw from being a part of the competition (Winsor, 2021). Biles did decide to compete in the beam portion of gymnastics, snagging herself a bronze medal, after taking a full week to focus on her mental health.

Finding a Balance

We assume that forcefully pushing ourselves through the bumps that come along our paths, is the key to success. However, this is very far from true. I was fortunate enough to hear this directly, from a five-time TBI survivor, “We have doctors for all of our body parts, why can’t we have a mental health doctor without feeling shame?”. So I challenge all of us, why can’t we? Shift begins with your thinking. Especially now, checking in on our mental health has become as important as having good physical health. Recognizing when we need a safe space to breathe (regardless of whether we are in a difficult position or not) is important to maintain our balance. It’s time to SHIFT.

Here to Help

At Power of Patients, we try our best to aid those individuals who are struggling because of their often-overwhelmed mental state, and those individuals who strive to make ends meet because of this dire state. We firmly believe that mental health is important and should never be left on the back burner. Providing yourself with the time and energy to feel the emotions that hurt you, is encouraged.

As advocates of healthy mindsets and inner peace, we have built a dashboard at that tracks and records all of your emotions. Merely updating your daily responses onto our page aids, you in maintaining and observing the points in your day that need to be worked on for a healthier lifestyle. It also provides us with the feedback we need to assist others in similar situations. Sign up for our monthly newsletter to get more information about our services to the brain injury community.

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