Team USA athletes pose for a group photo in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 3, 2022 in Washington, DC.
It was a complex equation that demanded untangling for a clear and effective solution: how to better help Team USA’s athletes with their diverse mental health needs.
The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee understood there was a need to refine and improve its programs, and it was time to make some bold changes.
The Mental Health Task Force officially launched in April 2020, just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. The work did not stop. In September of that year, Dr. Jessica Bartley was hired to be the USOPC’s first director of mental health services.
She has been busy trying to assess, and now change, how the USOPC provides mental health services for all athletes in all sports. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Bartley is hopeful Team USA athletes are feeling better supported.
“I have really leaned on the task force’s knowledge and their recommendations: to have more mental health resources and have an action plan of how we will enact these pieces,” Bartley, a sports psychologist, said. “COVID threw some wrenches into how we wanted to move forward, but we have been able to accomplish a lot during a stressful time and during two Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“It’s a work in progress, but I really feel excited about the direction we are going in. We are working hard to make things stronger for everybody.”
The slew of changes is long. Here are some highlights over the last 18 months:
- A 60-page emergency action plan, to guide best practices for assisting athletes in mental health crises, was developed and released. The range in elite athletes — from young teens to adults in their 40s, accounting for different genders and races, and spread around the world — was considered. Research-based pieces on the needs of high-profile athletes, plus those dealing with depression, anxiety, suicidal inclinations and eating disorders, are important parts of the first-ever action plan, according to Bartley.
- The development of stronger USOPC mental health web presence, https://www.teamusa.org/mentalhealth, to provide easier access to info, resources and discussion. A mental health app and telehealth option were also added. The third-party mental health resources maintain athlete anonymity, allowing them to use the service — and the USOPC to pay for it — without any revealing of info. Some athletes have been concerned that seeking mental health care could jeopardize spots on Team USA or resources. The blind-use policy ensures the USOPC does not know, and the athlete is protected.