Simone Biles wasn’t the first – before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams spoke up about mental health in sports

Star athletes who have spoken out about their mental health struggles include Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Photos: AP, AFP, Reuters

The USA gymnastics body officially announced yesterday that Olympic champion Simone Biles would be withdrawing from the final competition round at the Tokyo Games to focus on her mental health. The authority tweeted that they “wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her well-being”.

But the 24-year-old gymnast is definitely not the only celebrity athlete that has struggled with mental health issues. A report published by the Athletes for Hope organisation in the US revealed that 35 per cent of elite athletes have suffered from some kind of mental health crisis.

Here are five sports celebrities who’ve said, it’s OK not to be OK – kick-starting a conversation we should have had a long time ago about mental health and the pressure of the spotlight.

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Simone Biles

The support for Biles both online and within her Olympic team has been incredible, since her withdrawal from the women’s individual all-around final. Three-time Olympic gold medallist and former teammate Aly Raisman said in an interview with ESPN, that she was “very proud of Simone, and I can’t imagine the bravery that it takes to just say, ‘I’m not going to do it today’”.

Simone Biles waits before competing in the vault event of the artistic gymnastics women’s team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, on July 28. Photo: AFP

Swimmer Michael Phelps showed solidarity with his fellow Olympian in an interview with NBC, saying, “We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations being thrown on top of us.”

Naomi Osaka

At the Tokyo Games, Japan’s Naomi Osaka experienced a surprising 6-1, 6-4 loss to the Czech Republic’s Markéta Vondroušová at the third round of the Olympic tennis tournament. In subsequent interviews, it appeared that Osaka felt her mental health break made it harder for her to handle the pressure of being the face of the Tokyo Games.
Naomi Osaka of Japan walks off after losing her third round match against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo, Japan, on July 27. Photo: Reuters

In an opinion piece for Time magazine, written before her third-round match, Osaka described her decision to tend to her mental health before the Olympics. She wrote: “I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms – frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones.”

The Osaka native also noted that she is naturally introverted, and felt “uncomfortable” at the idea of being a spokesperson for mental health for athletes. However, she also said, “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”

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Michael Phelps

Phelps shared his struggles with depression and suicide after the 2012 Olympics, revealing in 2018 that he was “extremely thankful that I did not take my life”. The Olympic swimmer shared his personal story at the fourth annual conference of The Kennedy Forum, a mental health advocacy group in the US.

Michael Phelps. Photo: @omega/Instagram

When he was asked to specify when he felt his struggles with mental health began, the swimmer said that he had started noticing a pattern: “Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression.” He said that the feeling of sharing his experiences, and potentially helping to save lives, was “light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal”.

Ronda Rousey

The former UFC fighter broached the topic of suicide on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2016. Both her father and grandfather had taken their own lives and, after her December 2016 defeat at the UFC 207 against bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, Rousey admitted that she too had contemplated suicide.
Ronda Rousey reacts following her TKO defeat against Amanda Nunes during UFC 207 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, US, in December 2016. Photo: USA Today Sports

The professional wrestler later helped to open Didi Hirsch’s Suicide Prevention Center in 2019 and, when interviewed by TMZ, said, “My message that I would give is: reach out, don’t tough it out.”

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Serena Williams

In 2018, the 23-time grand slam champion opened up on Instagram about her struggle with post-partum “emotions” after she gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017.

In the No Filter – Mamamia podcast, she explained her choice of the word “emotions” rather than post-partum depression, a common mental health issue that affects more than one in every 10 women within a year of their giving birth. Williams said she: “felt like it was really important to talk about because a lot of people feel like the word ‘depression’ is bad, and just because you’re going through things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s depression.”

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If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

  • Olympic champion Simone Biles withdrew from the final individual all-around competition at Tokyo on July 28, supported by fellow gymnasts like Aly Raisman
  • Ronda Rousey opened up on Ellen about her suicidal thoughts following her UFC 207 defeat against Amanda Nunes – and she’s not the only athlete who’s struggled