Olympics-Team USA to have plenty of mental health support in Beijing

FILE PHOTO-Attendees wave flags with the emblem of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at a ceremony unveiling the slogan, in Beijing, China September 17, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

(Reuters) - The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Monday it will have a number of mental health resources in place at the 2022 Beijing Olympics to help protect the well-being of its entire delegation.

Mental health has long been a taboo subject within sport but U.S. gymnast Simone Biles brought the topic to the forefront at the Tokyo Olympics, leading others to become more comfortable speaking about their struggles as elite athletes.

"We learned a lot in the Tokyo Games and are looking forward to Beijing to better understand what our athletes are needing around mental health," Jessica Bartley, the USOPC's director of mental health, told the virtual Team USA media summit on Monday ahead of the Feb. 4-20 Beijing Olympics.

The Olympics can often be both an emotionally and mentally strenuous journey for athletes who strive for years with a single-minded focus to compete there and COVID-19 has created additional challenges.

Bartley said the USOPC has already conducted mental health screens around anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleep, alcohol and drug abuse in recent months to get a better baseline on where athletes are at.

Licensed mental health officers will be made available to U.S. athletes competing in Beijing along with therapists and psychiatrists at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

There will also be a crisis line set up as well as other initiatives around individual and group therapy as well as programming around transition out of sport for athletes who are thinking about retiring.

"One of the things that we do want to message a little bit differently from Tokyo is that this is accessible to any athlete who is on Team USA, any staff member, any family member. So we are there to really support the delegation for Team USA," said Bartley.

Restrictions related to COVID-19 denied athletes from having their usual support systems in Tokyo and while conditions will be similar in Beijing, winter athletes could be better prepared.

USOPC senior sport psychologist Sean McCann said many U.S. winter athletes are familiar and have adapted to being away from their support system for long stretches given that a number of their competitions happen in Europe.

"In some ways I would argue our winter sport athletes are a little bit better prepared for sort of being cut off from their support system," said McCann.

"They are really good with Zoom and FaceTime and any other technological way to get connect with their families ... that is a challenge but I think honestly our winter sports athletes are really trained in how to manage some of that."

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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