Rachael Flatt reacts after competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 29, 2011 in Greensboro, N.C.
Mental health is a topic that has impacted Para-cyclist Chris Murphy in many different ways throughout his life, even when he was too young to put a name to what he was experiencing.
From his mother’s battles to his own to a close friend’s heartbreaking decision to take her own life, he has long been aware of how mental health struggles can impact not only the individuals suffering but also those around them.
For that reason, he was eager to participate when asked to be part of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Mental Health Taskforce for support of Team USA athletes.
“The taskforce is full of people that just know what they’re talking about and who are very passionate,” said Murphy, who competed on the track and road at the Rio Games. “No one’s doing it just to do it. Everyone wants to make a difference.”
The 13-member taskforce, which includes current and retired athletes, coaches and mental and medical health professionals, was announced in early April after being organized in February.
Already, said retired Olympic figure skater Rachael Flatt, they’ve broken into different subcommittees and started working toward their goals of identifying and sharing the tools and resources that will be of greatest value to the athletic community. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the USOPC is focused on raising awareness around the subject. Tips, resources and athlete stories can be found at TeamUSA.org/MentalHealth.
This is something Flatt said wouldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago.
“We would not even be having this conversation,” the 2010 Olympian said. “Mental health has been such a taboo subject, and the only way it was discussed was in a veiled effort around resilience and mental toughness. Now we can be more open and talk about true clinical disorders such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. For me, the fact that we’re able to have open discussions now is exciting. I do think we have a long way to go in terms of getting folks on board in terms of education, awareness, prevention and treatment, and this is going to be an ongoing, evolving process.”
Flatt struggled with body image growing up in figure skating because the ideal physique was one that was very thin, svelte and toned.
“And I was not any of those things, really,” said Flatt, who finished seventh in Vancouver. “I was fit and strong, but most importantly I was really healthy and able to do all my skills and elements under pressure. Unfortunately a lot of coaches and officials and judges really didn’t think my physique was what it should be, so by the time I was 13 or 14 I was getting negative feedback that I needed to lose weight and needed to tone up. That lasted until I retired [at 21].”
Flatt said if it wasn’t for her parents she could have easily gone down the road of an eating disorder. Later, upon retiring from the sport as a junior at Stanford and then graduating a year later, she felt a void. Those events left her feeling a deep sense of loss because the goals she had always worked toward were over. She went through a low period of about six months, she said, before she started to climb back out.
“I felt like my identity had been stripped away,” she said. “I had no idea who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. It was scary thinking maybe I hit my peak at 17, and what else is left for me? That was a terrifying thought to be grappling with.”
Flatt is now pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina studying under Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. Flatt recently received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award to pursue her work with predicting binge eating and purging behaviors using dynamical systems modeling.
Murphy hopes his perspectives from growing up with an absentee mother who had her own suicide attempt when he was still a child, the toll his upbringing took on him mentally and emotionally, and how he learned to cope will add value to the taskforce.
Another reason he felt so compelled to help with the taskforce when asked was the suicide of his friend and training partner Kelly Catlin, a 2016 Olympic medalist in track cycling, in March 2019.
“When I was asked to provide athlete feedback and be on the taskforce that was definitely a motivating factor,” he said. “Having a friend who did not emerge from a mental health emergency, that experience motivated me to want to share my feedback and my life experiences and just help anybody from having to go through that.”
For Flatt, emphasizing mental health for elite athletes is long overdue. After so many years of perfecting the physicality of sports, injury prevention and everything on the sports medicine side, she said, the U.S. is now a powerhouse when it comes to Olympic and Paralympic sports. It’s time mental health caught up.
“The fact that it hasn’t been addressed yet makes this such an important time to make sure we’re doing the right thing by our athletes,” she said. “For current athletes, former athletes and future athletes as well. You can only do so much as an athlete if you’re physically healthy but not mentally healthy. It’s an ongoing conversation for sure, but now more than ever we have to be focusing on this. It’s a long time coming but I’m just super excited to be part of this and hoping that we are on the right track.”