Flag bearers Tyler Carter and Danelle Umstead lead Team USA out during the Opening Ceremony at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 4, 2022 in Beijing.
A short word with layered meanings. Dr. Jessica Bartley, the director of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s mental health services, wants to make trust a priority in everything her department offers for Team USA athletes.
Bartley, along with the other members of the USOPC’s Mental Health Task Force, freely acknowledge their attempts to help all athletes improve their mental health will not be realized unless trust is present.
“We need to show them why we are worthy of being trusted by them — trust is earned, never just given,” Bartley said. “I want to bring transparency right now. I want us to be showing, proving, the ways we are there for our athletes, starting with asking them what their needs are and how we best can be there for them.”
The challenge of providing a comprehensive and consistent spectrum of mental health services for Team USA is significant. Athletes can range from young teens into middle age. They have different genders and gender identities, races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, life experiences, sports, value systems and, of course, mental health needs. They can also be training and competing anywhere in the world.
Assessing elite athlete needs for mental health also comes in knowing the culture of their sport. Some sports have elements of disordered eating built in over the years, for example, while anger and controlled rage can be used in competitions.
The shifting lines of healthy and unhealthy, anxiety in high-profile situations like the Olympic and Paralympics, and simply being a complex human being in many dimensions are always in play. Having a variety of ways to improve mental health — from apps to telehealth to in-person counseling — can bridge the gaps that existed, Bartley and her colleagues hope.
The extra layer is the trust that has been broken with some Team USA athletes, due to the different forms of abuse stemming from their sport participation and their ongoing trauma.
“We have to be honest with one another, which means talking about what we hope to do, what are doing at this point, and name the things we have not done and fallen short in the past,” said Dr. Kensa Gunter, a member of the USOPC’s Mental Health Task Force. “You can’t paint the rose-colored picture and expect people to accept you as honest. We are here to be real and gain their trust by what we do.”