Laying the Foundation for Progress
It is part of being an activist or an advocate, that you tend to focus on the problems that still need to be solved, the voices that aren’t being heard, the progress that needs to be maintained or continued. Wins in the field are not so often celebrated, because they’re immediately followed up with: there is still much more that needs to be done.
This is absolutely true. For each step forward we must still recognize that progress must continue, we should use momentum to our advantage, and keep the conversation going. But I would like to celebrate a win in this blog today, and see what we can learn from it in order to keep the movement alive and thriving. I believe we can do both – celebrate our wins and use the lessons learned from victories to propel further action.
I want specifically to address the increased recognition and acceptance of public figures like elite athletes speaking up and raising their voices about their mental health challenges. From Simone Biles in the last summer Olympic Games, to tennis star Naomi Osaka, to the brave action of the entire U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team confronting their abuser Larry Nasser, and further pursuing misconduct at the FBI for the lack of immediate action and prioritization of their case after their initial reports of abuse. Women across elite athletics are speaking up and out against bullying, weight-shaming, abuse, and toxic work environments. They’re standing up for themselves to take the necessary breaks when they need to for their own mental health. They are being a public example of what it means to prioritize their mental health, even when the stakes and pressure are astronomically high. It is brave and it is to be commended.
Of course, there has been backlash from some commentators and corners of social media, as these athletes in interviews have mentioned. Being vulnerable about their own mental health has also been risky, as they put themselves “out there” to be the target of more (mostly online) abuse. But the messages of support have also been overwhelming, and the hope is that their bravery will inspire others in their sports, and set an example that will lead to long-term changes to the dangerous cultural norm that success is defined by the pursuit of excellence above all else, even at the risk of destroying one’s mental health.
We can celebrate these champions, as well as the millions of others privately (not publicly) standing up for their own mental health and others’. However, we must ask, as a NY Times article recently did: What took so long?
Christy Heinrich, member of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team suffered very publicly with an eating disorder after comments made by an international judge about her weight and a toxic coaching situation, and died at age 22 as a direct result of her eating disorder – in 1994. Many other athletes, not only gymnasts, have come forward over the past decades to sound the alarm about dangerous coaching methods. Why was more not done earlier? What can we learn from this, while we are celebrating our current moment?
To begin, we are benefitting from being in a time where we are having most open, public conversations we have had in our national history about mental health. Advocates, mental health professionals, and families have been working at the grassroots for decades to educate lawmakers, media members, their communities, and others about the deadliness of stigmatization and the need for open conversations about mental health. Normalizing the desire to reach out and ask for support or help, and beginning the processes of holding those responsible for abuse to account. We have not arrived at this place where athletes speak out with some conviction that they will receive understanding and support (though not as much as we would hope) – by accident. It has been because of decades of work among people that have been slowly breaking down systemic ignorance in order to encourage progress.
The lessons from this? Change is slow and takes constant hard work from the ground up. We applaud when we hear public voices championing change in mental health and standing up for themselves and others. But that ground was made fertile by activists and advocates and clinicians over years. So wherever we are, in our daily lives – as parents, coaches, teachers, professionals, family members – we are responsible for enacting the change in our circles in our daily lives. We are a part of changing attitudes every day. We are responsible for speaking up and out in our communities and schools. We must keep this ball rolling as well, so that we can build on the momentum we experience now; so that not one more person dies of an eating disorder or other mental health issue because the public pressure was too great, so they remained silent.
Everyone has a role in continuing to create an environment where people who struggle are able to reach out and get the care, and freedom, that they deserve. Public figures like elite athletes have their role, and they are inspiring. But the energy in a movement is dynamic and involves us all. With our collective action, we celebrate the moment and keep pressing forward, with hope, that next time, it won’t take so long. The foundation will be laid, the voices will be heard. They already are – let’s keep going.
Kirsten Haglund Müller-Daubermann is an international speaker, mental health advocate and digital media strategist. She serves as the Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls and as Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation. She served as Miss America 2008. Kirsten is also the host of “Honest Talk,” Timberline Knolls’ Instagram LIVE interview series @timberlinetoday. Kirsten studied musical theatre performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), and graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in Political Science. She is currently based in Zürich, Switzerland. For more information about Timberline Knolls, please visit: timberlineknolls.com.