Molly Seidel, who qualified last year for Team USA in the marathon, runs during a training session on July 10, 2020 in Boston, Mass.
Mental health in sport has become a topic people are talking about much more openly; I’m glad it’s definitely out there in the public discourse and people are paying attention to it as a key aspect of health.
So much of athletics and competition really is about maximizing both your physical and mental game. Athletes really have to home in on various mental techniques in order to compete at the highest level.
On the flip side of it, I’ve seen disproportionately high numbers of mental problems among athletes. Maybe the intensity and drive that are required to succeed in sports can also manifest in unhealthier ways.
I see so many people dealing with depression and anxiety. And without social interaction, or specifically a support network of people looking out for you on a more regular basis, I think these things can really spiral quickly. I’ve noticed it with my own mental health during the pandemic, and I certainly am not alone in this.
I deal with OCD, and I have a longstanding history of eating disorders. During the pandemic, I dealt with relapsing into both of those. It’s very difficult when you’re dealing with an enormous amount of stress in day-to-day life with COVID-19, and then at the same time you don’t have the normal outlets that you develop over years to deal with mental struggles such as in-person therapy or reaching out to friends. All of that was taken away, so the problem just compounds.
I dealt with my relapse by connecting with my therapist via Zoom and I really leaned on my family. My sister and I returned to our family’s home in Wisconsin for a month when the pandemic was at its worst. I also absorbed myself in training as a way to help create a sense of normalcy and a sense of rhythm.
But running alone isn’t enough to get through mental health struggles. It definitely helps, but I think people have a tendency to overexaggerate the ability of exercise and sports to “fix” them. Athletics aren’t therapy; they are a part of the solution but need to go along with other more focused mental health work.
Right now I’m in full marathon build for the Games this summer, and while there are ups and downs I feel like I’m in a solid place mentally. I’m living out in Flagstaff, Arizona, and preparing as best I can for the biggest race of my life so far. A big part of that preparation is training my brain for the pressure and challenge of the Olympic marathon.
There’s been a lot of uncertainty about holding the 2020 Olympics, and since the postponement of the Games last April I’ve experienced a lot of stress wondering if the Games will go on as planned. I’m hoping, (knock on wood) that everything is set to move forward this summer. Simply not knowing brings an added level of stress to already an enormously stressful event. It also won’t be a typical Olympic experience; I will probably have a quarantine, won’t be allowed to enter the Tokyo Olympic Village since our event is held in Sapporo, and will not be able to attend opening ceremonies. Regardless, I am still so excited to get the opportunity to compete and live out a dream of racing at the Olympics I’ve held since I was a kid.
To deal with stress, as well as the OCD I’ve had since age 12, I have some tactics I’ve worked to develop. First, finding and working with a therapist. That’s been truthfully the biggest thing for me -- consistent targeted therapy. I do meditation and mindfulness practices. I also focus on eating well, exercising, and getting outside. I think if your body’s healthy your brain is healthier, too.
I also find that just talking to people is one of the most powerful mental health practices. Even if it isn’t a therapist, being able to reach out to people and being able to say, “Hey, I’m not doing OK right now” is huge. I need to lean on other people. It’s being able to be vulnerable.
Many people (myself included) have difficulty reaching out. Nobody wants to come across as weak, or burden people with problems. I think the thing that I’ve realized the most throughout my own mental health journey is the people who love you are willing to go through the hard times with you. And they want you to be able to say when you’re struggling because they genuinely care about you. It’s the kind of thing where if a friend of mine were struggling I’d want them to be able to tell me and talk to me about it.
Since going public about my story I’ve been asked to speak on mental health frequently, and I’ve had a lot of people reach out out to me regarding their own mental health struggles. When I first talked about my eating disorder on a friend’s podcast I never imagined it would gain as much traction as it did; in a way I’ve become a bit of an unwilling advocate, and looked at as a “success story” while I still often struggle to manage my mental health.
I want to be able to help people and share my story, but truthfully it can be pretty difficult to be seen now as a mental health advocate. People reach out to me with really difficult stories online or ask for advice; many of them are looking to me to give them all the answers, but all I have is my own story which won’t apply to everyone. I do advise them to really seek help from a licensed therapist and tell them that despite the success in running I’ve had I still struggle. I’m still a work in progress, and all I have is my individual experience.
I think my story has resonated within the running community, and I hope that it’s been able to help people. Not many people speak out about mental health or eating disorders, and even those who do keep it pretty tame. I’m definitely not ashamed of what I went through, and I’ve been open about the uglier parts. It’s definitely an unconventional story for an Olympian but I think it gives some people hope who are in the thick of it that things can get better. With the right support it’s possible to overcome really, really severe mental health struggles - like being institutionalized or going through eating disorder treatment -- and it’s possible to thrive at a high level despite some of the biggest setbacks that you can possibly have in terms of mental health.