May 4, 2021

Hello MindSite News readers,

Today we have a special section on sports and mental health, beginning with a New York Times piece that traces the ongoing struggle for mental wellness among athletes to the tragic 1994 death of Christy Henrich, an Olympic contender in gymnastics. Athletes’ challenge to the status quo is surfacing in many other sports as well, including basketball, football and baseball, as seen in a a companion story about the Boston Red Sox teaming up with a mental health foundation.

We also look at stories exploring the growing opposition to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed CARE Court proposal and the decline in smoking among people dealing with depression and substance use disorders. Plus, 10 great reads for Mental Health Awareness Month brought to you by Book Riot. Enjoy!

News from around the web

Olympic champion gymnast and mental health advocate Simone Biles (Shutterstock)

Christy Henrich’s death launched a drive for mental wellness in sports

Even before the public became aware of the decades-long sexual abuse and misconduct plaguing USA Gymnastics, participants had known its environment was toxic. The catalyst was the death of Olympic contender Christy Henrich, who died from multiorgan failure linked to her eating disorder in 1994, just three years after she left the sport due to her struggles with anorexia and bulimia. Now, just one year after a pandemic-era Summer Olympics in which all-time greats like Simone Biles began to speak openly about their struggles with mental health, the New York Times has taken a look back at the circumstances that contributed to Henrich’s demise – and to the mental health struggles of her contemporaries.

Credit: Twitter

With their sights set on becoming Olympians, Henrich and her peers trained doggedly in gymnastics while enduring relentless hectoring about their weight and appearance – not only from coaches and competition judges, but from the media. 

Prior to Henrich’s death, news about gymnasts “routinely included their heights and weights.” Asked how her eating disorder started in an interview not long before she died, Henrich said that her coach likened her weight to that of the Pillsbury Doughboy. A U.S. gymnastics judge told her “she was fat and wouldn’t make the 1988 Olympic team if she didn’t lose weight.” She didn’t make the 1988 team for other reasons, but began to stop eating shortly thereafter. What her fiancé, Bo Moreno, remembered about that time was the response to her initial weight loss: During a televised event, he recalled, “The first thing the announcer said was: ‘Look at Christy Henrich. She’s slimmed up. She looks great.’”

In response to Henrich’s death, broadcast media largely stopped listing gymnasts’ weights, and USA Gymnastics began an athlete wellness program. It connected athletes to eating disorder treatment, offered coaching in nutrition and sports psychology, and paired current national team members with USA Gymnastics alumni who could serve as confidantes. 

But the program didn’t last. Funding was cut around 2000, and training camps were run at the gym of Martha and Bela Karolyi, both since accused of abusive training methods. Larry Nassar, who was later convicted of sexually abusing athletes for decades, served as team doctor. It wasn’t until 2016, around the time Nassar’s abuse was revealed, that retired USA gymnast Theresa Kulikowski – who now runs a mindfulness and meditation practice –was asked to overhaul USA Gymnastics’s wellness guidelines.

Boston Red Sox partner with Massachusetts foundation on mental health

Duston Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox on May 1, 2010/Credit: Brandon Vincent/Shutterstock

Despite the perception that professional athletes are superior in body and mind, the Boston Red Sox have joined forces with the Ruderman Family Foundation to combat that myth. As reported by the Boston Globe, the two have collaborated on an initiative that “seeks to encourage sports teams, athletes, and fans alike [from all sports] to have an open conversation about mental health.”

It’s hoped that more public conversations about mental health will inspire other athletes—and their fans—to consider mental health as a key component of overall health. In a statement to the public at a kickoff event about the partnership, Shira Ruderman, the foundation’s executive director, cited findings that  even though 35% of elite athletes have a mental health condition, they’re much less likely to seek mental health support than the general public. With this partnership, however, they expect more people will agree with the sentiments of NBA player Kevin Love. “When a player gets injured, they see a doctor,” he said. “We shouldn’t diminish physical health, and mental health is no different.”

California Gov. Newsom’s CARE Court legislation getting more pushback from opponents

Opposition continues to mount to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court legislation. The acronym for Senate Bill 1338 stands for Community Assistance, Recovery, & Empowerment Court. It would empower a large swath of people – family members, first responders, county mental health officials, hospitals, and clinicians – to request that the court mandate treatment, including hospitalization, for people with certain mental health conditions, including schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Patients would be required to follow a specific plan for mental health and substance abuse treatment, medication, and housing. 

Newsom and his supporters have presented the bill as a way to help the many mentally ill unhoused people throughout the state. Sen. Thomas Umberg, D-Santa Ana, and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told The Mercury News, “The alternative is to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to let you live under a bridge because I want to respect your autonomy. I’m going to let you languish under a bridge in your own feces, and I hope you make the right decisions.’”

The bill’s opponents argue that the proposition is inhumane and a poor plan to tackle the homelessness crisis. At the heart of the matter is this: Is it ethical to force people into psychiatric facilities against their will, even if they may be too ill to recognize they need help?

“Court should be a last resort,” said Kim Pederson, a senior attorney with Disability Rights California. Her agency is one of many opposing the bill. “I can tell you that these folks that the state wants to serve via the CARE Court process have a lot of trauma around courts and do not see courts as a place where they can get help.”

In other news….

Looking for your next great read? Consider a title from this Book Riot list of 10 Books to Read for Mental Health Awareness Month. It runs the gamut from Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, a memoir about her life with bipolar disorder, to Talia Hibbert’s romance, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, about a professional athlete’s struggle with anxiety. 

“I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying”/Harper-Collins

“I’ve realized mental health care, like suicide prevention efforts, shouldn’t start after a crisis has occurred.” That’s the crux of this Seattle Times op-ed by Cornell University undergraduate Seika Brown. The realization was thrust upon her following her older brother’s suicide attempt 12 years ago. Since then, Brown has founded multiple organizations dedicated to suicide prevention, mental health awareness and policy change, including a global initiative that seeks to understand how mental health is defined across cultures.

More mobile mental health crisis teams: In recent years, the police department in Columbus, Ohio has had to respond to increasing numbers of mental health-related calls. In response, the division created a Mobile Crisis Response Unit, in which officers are paired with social workers from Columbus Public Health to respond alongside officers. WBNS-Columbus has more.

In a change that researchers are calling “a public health success story,” fewer people struggling with depression and substance use disorders are smoking. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found significant declines in smoking between both groups between 2006 and 2019. Though rates are still high for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and the study did not include unhoused people or those who are institutionalized, the findings are generally aligned with declining cigarette use among adults across the nation. 

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

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Courtney WiseReporter

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...