Sha’Carri Richardson and the Reminders About Mental Health We All Need Right Now

Jul 15, 2021

By Andrea Holman, PhD, DEIB Program Manager for Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health

The 2021 Olympic Trials have provided people around the world with hope, inspiration, and entertainment. United States sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was one American Olympian who accomplished all of the above, particularly for young women of color aspiring to achieve athletic greatness. Unfortunately, the recent headlines have focused on her suspension from the U.S. Olympic team due to marijuana use. 

This news has served as a catalyst for much debate and emotional response along athletic, political, legal, and racial lines. While there are as many different opinions on Richardson’s choices and subsequent suspension as there are track and field athletes competing in the Olympics, there are at least five mental health takeaways I believe we all can agree on:  

1. The struggle is real

Of all the unique and unpredictable aspects of human life, suffering is not one of them. In fact, experiencing setbacks may be one of the most universal aspects of human existence. People of all identities from all corners of the Earth endure challenges that can leave them reeling, with physical and emotional consequences. To acknowledge struggle is to embrace humanity. (So to those currently enduring hardship, you could not be further from alone. It is not just you.)

2. Strength, success, and talent do not negate that struggle

“…I am human,” Richardson told NBC’s Today show. “I’m you, I just happen to run a little faster.” Richardson’s words ring with truth and vulnerability. 

Often, we assume that people with uncommon talents or celebrity status do not experience difficulty, at least not in the same way as most people. But the human experience is complex; someone can hold difficulty in one hand while holding skills and talents to change the world in the other. In the words of artist and producer Fred Hammond, “Pain doesn’t care where you live or who you are.” 

Part of what we can learn from Richardson’s beautiful statement of her humanity is that experiencing mental distress does not mean you’re not fully capable of teaching and shaping the world around you. While many reading this won’t have an Olympian’s fame or athleticism, you may know what it feels like for someone to assume that your strength negates your struggle. This serves as a reminder that your soul is strong enough to hold both struggle and skill. To believe otherwise creates unnecessary pressure to suppress real symptoms and increases feelings of loneliness and distress. Give yourself and others room to accept your complex humanity by embracing both your skills and your struggle.

3. Minimizing grief and trauma is destructive

The impact of grief and trauma on the brain and body can be serious and long-lasting. Richardson has publicly shared that her biological mother died unexpectedly during the Olympic Trials. Experiences like this can cause a physical and psychological response that can be distracting at best, and crippling at worst. Those who have a difficult time managing related acute symptoms of distress are not broken, weak, or defective; they are paying attention. Minimizing or suppressing these symptoms can:

  • Prolong suffering
  • Reinforce inaccurate beliefs that the person is not strong enough to “keep it together”
  • Increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideation

It should also be acknowledged, especially during BIPOC Mental Health Month, that many Black women like Richardson can experience difficulty making space for their grief and trauma, which can raise their risk of depression. Caring for these women, as well as other people of color, starts with acknowledging and appropriately naming traumatic events (and their impact on the brain and body) for what they are. It continues with embracing their humanity by challenging problematic stereotypes of strength and infallibility and providing tangible tools to cope with the world around them.

4. Learning healthy coping skills at a younger age promotes long-term health and resilience 

Adversity and hardships (particularly traumatic ones) often start at a much younger age than anyone would prefer. Richardson’s story highlights how helpful it is to be introduced to a variety of healthy, long-term ways to cope with these difficulties sooner rather than later. Broadening the “coping toolbox” can give people a range of options for dealing with overwhelming mental health symptoms. This can be helpful so that when one tool–like marijuana–can’t be used, there is another way to deal with distressing situations and emotions.

Richardson is one of many people who have faced legal and professional consequences for coping in a way that violated established rules. Unfortunately, rules (and the consequences for not following them) are not always fair or just. As such, it is important for youth to be educated about emotional awareness, distress tolerance, and self-care.This way, when (not if) people experience emotional distress, they’ll have the option to reach for resources that help them endure adversity while maintaining their financial, professional, and legal standing. While self-care and emotional awareness are key, long-term coping also includes knowing when to seek mental health care and choosing to do so.

5. Support the search for mental health services

There are long-term benefits to seeking needed mental health services when such support is indicated or desired. While it’s important to encourage individuals to get help, finding that support can add more work for someone who is trying to manage their distress. Often, people hear suggestions for professional help after they’ve made an unhealthy choice or experienced a mental health crisis. If you know someone who is experiencing psychological distress, one meaningful way you can support them is to support their search, especially before a point of crisis. This can include any of the following:

  • Support healthy and varied coping. When someone you care about is attempting to cope with challenges in a way that may have negative long-term consequences or threaten their well-being, voice your concern and suggest a healthier alternative. This includes a suggestion for counseling.
  • Communicate your support clearly. Provide verbal and non-verbal affirmation when someone makes the sometimes tough decision to seek mental health care. Verbal affirmation can include normalizing specific language around mental health. For example, using the words “counseling” or “therapy” instead of “seeing someone” can lessen the stigma around seeking care. Non-verbal affirmation, such as empathetic body language and an accepting tone of voice, can prevent the silent communication of shame and/or disapproval.
  • Assist with the search for care. Searching for a mental health care provider who is trusted, affordable, and practices culturally responsive and evidence-based care can be a daunting task. You can support someone seeking care by helping them look up provider websites, sharing names of providers you might recommend, and helping them figure out the logistics for their first appointment. For Black American women like Richardson, this is particularly urgent. Your loved ones are not alone in their struggle or their search. Ensure they know that.
  • Share your story. Shared experience is a powerful way to destigmatize seeking mental health support. If you’ve sought care and found benefit, talking about your positive experience with mental health care can help others realize they’re not alone and that taking a chance on therapy may be worthwhile.
  • Stay “in it” for the long haul. The path to mental health and wellness is a journey, not a destination. For long-term accountability and support, you may need to do more than suggest that someone see a counselor. Ask follow-up questions (when appropriate and welcomed) about the plan to engage in care, how their healing is progressing, and how you might be an active participant in it.

Sha’Carri Richardson is not merely a cautionary tale, political fodder, nor an example to uphold. She is an individual who is complex, valuable, and full of skill and fallibility. And so are you. Let’s all continue to learn from the ways our humanity overlaps with hers so we can better support ourselves and our communities in the future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Holman, PhD, is the DEIB Program Manager for Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health. Prior to her role at Lyra, she served as an Associate Professor of Psychology at Huston-Tillotson University. She primarily engages students in the classroom and conducts research understanding the psychological experience of African-Americans, specifically the complexities of race, identity and cultural mistrust and their impact on interracial interactions.