On Monday, the New York Times published an article and video on Greek-American runner and 2016 Olympian Alexi Pappas in which she opens up about her struggles with mental health in recent years. Pappas, who competed for Greece in the 10,000m at the Rio Games (setting a Greek national record of 31:36.16 in the event), says she spent her whole life working toward the Olympics. But after she made it and ran on the world stage, her mental health spiralled downward, and she was eventually diagnosed with severe clinical depression. Compounded by injuries, lack of sleep and a refusal to stop training, she even contemplated suicide. Now she’s speaking out so others don’t have to experience what she endured.
“I’ve always been an extremely motivated person,” Pappas says in the video. “That mindset took me all the way to the Olympics, but it didn’t prepare me for what would be the greatest challenge of my life…. It doesn’t have to be that way. What if we athletes approached our mental health the same way we approach our physical health?”
When Pappas was a child, her mother died by suicide. For years following her mother’s death, Pappas says she resented her mother. She thought mental health was something that could be controlled, and so in her mind, her mother “just didn’t love me enough to stay. And that’s not true. She was sick.” She came to this realization through her own struggles with mental health, which started with a “tremendous crash” after returning home from the Olympics.
Even then, Pappas continued to push herself even though she knew something was wrong. She had a hard time sleeping, she moved cities, she changed coaches, but nothing helped. After continuing her training as usual, she suffered two injuries — a torn hamstring and a cracked bone in her lower back. “I couldn’t move without being in terrible pain,” she says.
This was when the thoughts of suicide crept in — when she couldn’t see a way out of her depression. “I always saw myself as someone who could never feel that way,” she says. Luckily, before she acted on these thoughts, her father insisted she see a psychiatrist, who told her she was suffering from a “mental health injury.” Calling it an injury — a tangible idea Pappas could understand after dealing with plenty of physical injuries throughout her career — helped her change her mindset.
“I understood that like a broken bone, I wasn’t going to feel better overnight,” she says. After working to recover, Pappas says she has a new outlook on mental health. “So many Olympians have experienced a mental health injury,” she says. “What if we looked at mental health the same way we do physical health?” She points to the staffs of athletic teams and clubs, so many of whom are dedicated to helping with physical injuries, but Pappas says she never had mental health support.
In honor of the @nytopinion piece, I've created this poster — I invite athletes & coaches of all ages to download the poster (link in bio), share it, or even print it out for your locker room. our vocab around mental health can change now if we let it. the brain is a body part! pic.twitter.com/RfD4tAppvW
— Alexi Pappas (@AlexiPappas) December 7, 2020
Like with her physical health, Pappas works at her mental health every day. Just like that broken bone she mentioned, just because it heals doesn’t mean it can’t be broken again, and that’s the same with mental health injuries. There’s no cure-all for these issues, but individuals can proactively work on their mental health to avoid falling as deeply as Pappas and so many other athletes have in the past.
Pappas’s book Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas will be available in Canada in January. Watch for our review in the March/April 2021 issue of Canadian Running.