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Paralympians Speak Out About the Mental Health Challenges They Face

paralympic basketball players

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will take place from August 24 to September 5.
  • In the shadow of the pandemic, Paralympians faced mental health concerns such as feelings of isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty.
  • Paralympians are vocalizing their physical and mental health needs and experiences, alongside mental health professionals.

2019 is the best year Deja Young remembers experiencing as a competitor. Over a long season, the American 100- and 200-meter sprinter trained with vigor, knowing the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games were coming up the following year. Then, the pandemic came, and with it an indefinite delay of competition. At one point, Young stopped training altogether, overwhelmed and in search of a break.

“I felt like all of my goals that I had made for myself had just gone out of the window. I had this sensation of feeling lost. I didn’t know what to do or where to go,” says Young, who won two gold medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. In the fall of 2020, she returned to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, but she soon went home to be with her family after her mental health continued to deteriorate.

If 2019 was Young’s best season, she calls 2020 her worst. Her love for the sport was slowly disappearing, and, going into the Paralympic trials, she had low expectations. “I had placed my value and success in the same circle,” says Young. “I felt like if I wasn’t successful, I wouldn’t be valuable, so my anxiety for trials was very high.” She remembers the relief when she was named to the team competing at the rescheduled Games from August 24 to September 5, 2021.

Young is far from the only Paralympian whose mental health declined during the pandemic—especially as they trained solo. “The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone globally, and Paralympians are not immune to its impacts. The level of isolation experienced over the last one and a half years was especially difficult for these athletes, as connecting with teammates and coaches has been an integral part of maintaining healthy mental well-being through the pressures of preparing for the games,” says Nidhi Tewari, LCSW, a therapist and owner of her own practice. “In addition, the lack of access to facilities may have increased athletes' anxieties about performing at a pre-pandemic level without being able to utilize the optimal resources for training.”

Pandemic Impact

Arinn Young understands the unanticipated impacts of the coronavirus pandemic well. The Canadian basketball player couldn’t train with her teammates for over half a year—a critical aspect of preparing to compete in such a connected sport. It brought up a lot of uncertainties: “Will our team cohesion still be there? When will we get to actually be together? It was scary, especially when we are high performance and the Paralympics are not far away,” says Young, who has no relation to her fellow athlete Deja Young.

David Blair, Paralympic Discus Thrower

This year is much more stressful than the other years. I’ve actually started losing a little sleep already, which I wouldn’t expect until like a couple of days before the competition. But there’s so much unknown with COVID.

— David Blair, Paralympic Discus Thrower

“These external stressors may impact athletes’ mental health as they already have to manage so many changes in the context of the games,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, a psychologist and an advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. “They already have to take so many precautions to stay healthy and safe, and these additional stressors can take a toll on their bodies. We know that stress impacts our physical health, and this is important to consider, especially for athletes that rely on being in top physical health for these competitions.”

Plus, for the moment, Young, who previously competed at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, had lost her usual outlet for her emotions: training and playing basketball.

Fortunately, Young’s small town pulled together to find weight room equipment and space for her to practice. Her spirits began to lift once she could train. The support from her town and teammates—via regular Zoom calls—also helped.

Besides some performance anxiety, gold medalist Rose Hollermann doesn’t recall dealing with adverse mental health much before the pandemic. After competing in the 2012 and 2016 Games, she was chosen for the U.S. basketball Paralympic team in January 2020. As the pandemic began, her mental health took a turn for the worse as she waited to hear what would happen with the Games. At the time, she was living in a small apartment in Spain, where she plays professionally. “I felt so much anxiety that I started to turn towards meditation and sports psychology a little bit more to help me get through it,” says Hollermann.

“Developing daily practices, like using grounding exercises to orient yourself to the present moment, and separating your self-worth and identity from the outcome of competitions can aid in coping with mental health challenges,” says Tewari.

Arinn Young, Paralympic Basketball Player

Will our team cohesion still be there? When will we get to actually be together? It was scary, especially when we are high performance and the Paralympics are not far away.

— Arinn Young, Paralympic Basketball Player

When the delay was announced, Hollermann felt relieved and a bit safer. She continued to focus on her mental health and anxiety. With the games around the corner, Hollermann says she’s in a better place mentally than before the pandemic started.

However, as the Games move forward in a world where COVID is still a threat, athletes are acutely aware of the risk of contracting the virus before or while traveling to the Games. American discus thrower David Blair, who won gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games after a 16-year break from competing, is taking every precaution to ensure he can attend the Tokyo Games. This includes living in a self-imposed quarantine at home with his wife and four daughters.  

The uncertainty of contracting COVID can increase an athlete's anxiety, says Lira de la Rosa. “We still do not know the long-term effects of recovering from COVID-19, and this can significantly impact an athlete's overall health and performance.”

Seeking Therapy and Spreading Awareness

Mental health awareness has been a cause close to Blair’s heart for quite some time. The discus thrower lost his sister to suicide three years ago. In 2019, at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, he made yellow bracelets, and fellow athletes and coaches wore them to represent that their lives had been touched by suicide. He hopes to do something similar at this year’s Paralympic Games.

Blair is also very open with sharing how helpful seeing a psychologist has been for him and hopes to encourage mental health conversations in sports—especially in the face of such unprecedented circumstances.

“This year is much more stressful than the other years. I’ve actually started losing a little sleep already, which I wouldn’t expect until like a couple of days before the competition. But there’s so much unknown with COVID, and with this and with that right now,” says Blair. “They’re telling us we have limited staff. I’m seeing athletes that [the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] is pulling their personal support person on the Paralympian’s side and saying, ‘The one you have can’t come. You have to use the one we designate.’”

Some Paralympians Lack Adequate Support

As of now, the Paralympics will implement the same safety restrictions as the Olympics, meaning athletes may not have the support they require. For some competitors, this means facing the stress of going it alone or dropping out of the Games entirely.

This was the case for three-time gold medalist Paralympic swimmer Becca Meyers, who is deaf-blind, after the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) would not allow her mom to come as a personal care assistant. The team will instead have 11 staff for 34 swimmers, USOPC said in a statement—only one of them is acting in the official capacity of a personal care assistant. Meyers spoke out about the decision in an op-ed: “As Paralympians, we train as hard as our counterparts, the Olympians. We deserve the same quality and safety nets that our able-bodied teammates will receive.” 

Paralympians are making sure to vocalize what they need and are experiencing, both physically and mentally. “I do feel like a few years ago this was a subject that no one really spoke about. It was one of those things that were deemed to make people uncomfortable. Now I feel like the stigma is being broken for athletes of all levels,” remarks Young, the sprinter. “I’m so grateful to be a part of this movement because what we do on the track is just the beginning. It is so much bigger than sport. I will continue to speak out about my mental health so that other athletes won’t have to go through the things I did."

What This Means For You

For Paralympians and all elite competitors, Lira de la Rosa cautions to take care of yourself. “The pandemic has negatively impacted so many aspects of all our lives and athletes are not exempt. Their mental health is just as important as is their overall physical health and I would encourage them to treat themselves with compassion.”

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