On balance, you could argue we’ve made a lot of progress when it comes to mental health acceptance ― especially in the last few years. But if the events that unfolded in 2021 are any indication, there’s still a lot more ground we need to cover.
There certainly were some high points in mental health awareness over the last 365 days, but also some absolute fails we had to endure. From bad pundit opinions to shining moments in sports, we’ve witnessed a lot this year.
Below are some of the best and worst mental health takes from 2021 and how we can markedly improve in the new year:
Athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka prioritized their mental health over sports.
This summer we saw two powerful athletes put their mental well-being over their games ― and the world is much better for their advocacy.
Earlier this summer, tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, which came after she said she would boycott the press at the tournament to protect her mental health. Osaka wrote in her announcement that she experiences bouts of depression and has social anxiety.
In July, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympics because of her mental health. “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out,” she said at the time. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.”
Both athletes received undue criticism (more on that in a minute) for their decisions. However, they also were given a ton of well-deserved praise. No one would roll their eyes if they had suffered a leg or an arm injury. The brain is a body part just like any other ― and it’s past time it’s treated the same in sports.
“This year has been a big year for celebrities talking about mental health, particularly in more underrepresented groups like athletes or people of color. It is important for these conversations to keep occurring because we need to normalize seeking help,” Jessica Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told HuffPost.
“We are not yet in a place where workplaces and families of all types are open to talking about mental health or viewing it the same as physical health, and having these examples to start breaking down the barriers is necessary,” Gold added.
Chance The Rapper candidly discussed living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In October, Chance The Rapper appeared on Facebook Watch’s “Peace of Mind with Taraji.” During the interview, he opened up to Taraji P. Henson and Tracie Jade about living with PTSD.
“Obviously I deal with PTSD; I saw my friend killed in front of me when I was 19 and I’ve seen people I didn’t know get killed, too,” he said in the interview. “You become kind of numb to it, like somebody else died last week but it stays with you, you know what I mean? And you don’t realize until later — like, I have lasting effects.”
He also spoke about not growing up with mental health awareness and the pressure put on Black men to be tough. “I feel like this is something that we’re all, as a mainstream, we’re starting to be like, ‘OK, yeah health is beyond just our physical,’” he said.
“It’s been truly amazing to have this many public figures, including so many male public figures, speaking openly about their mental health,” Andrew P. Smiler, the mental health adviser for Movember in the U.S., told HuffPost. “There’s clearly a cultural shift occurring that’s allowing and encouraging people to prioritize their mental health.”
“It’s been truly amazing to have this many public figures, including so many male public figures, speaking openly about their mental health.”
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry gave a much-needed look into what it’s like to live with suicidal thoughts.
Earlier this year, Oprah conducted a dynamic interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle about their step back from the royal family and the mental health struggles Markle endured during her time working as a royal. Markle revealed a number of shocking incidents, but perhaps one of the more heart-wrenching revelations was that she experienced suicidal thoughts.
“Look, I was really ashamed to have to say it at the time and ashamed to have to admit it to Harry especially, because I know how much loss he’s suffered,” she said in the interview. “But I knew that if I didn’t say that I would do it ... and I just didn’t ― I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.”
Markle’s story and her poignant reflections on that time period resonated with a lot of viewers, who thanked her for her vulnerability.
People also felt connected to Prince Harry during the interview, who said he struggled with figuring out how to help Markle during that time. His honesty provided welcome insight into what it’s like to help and care for a loved one struggling with their mental health.
“Prince Harry has emphasized that we all have a role in helping someone who may be struggling with their mental health ― you don’t have to be a mental health professional,” Smiler said.
Federal and state organizations more solidly recognized people with mental health conditions.
We’d be remiss not to mention it: In 2021, federal and state bodies took two big steps toward giving people with mental health conditions the legitimacy and attention they deserve.
In 2020, the U.S. Senate officially greenlit 9-8-8, a new national phone number that more easily connects people to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. This year, state governments began adopting the number into their own laws. Starting in July 2022, people will be able to dial 9-8-8 to connect to counselors when in crisis, similar to how they can dial 9-1-1 in an emergency.
And in an important move in the fight against COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added schizophrenia and mood disorders like depression to their official list of underlying medical conditions in October, formally recognizing the diseases as high-risk factors for coronavirus. This allowed people with mental health conditions to get booster shots earlier than the general population. Mental health advocates also said adding the conditions to the list helped further solidify the fact that mental health is health.
Megyn Kelly questioned the validity Naomi Osaka’s anxiety.
In a series of tweets back in July, media personality Megyn Kelly implied that Naomi Osaka wasn’t really suffering from anxiety. Instead, Kelly insisted the tennis star just didn’t like answering certain questions.
“Since saying she’s too introverted to talk to the media after tennis matches, Naomi Osaka has launched a reality show, a Barbie, and now is on the cover of the SI Swimsuit Issue,” sports analyst Clay Travis tweeted, which Kelly quote-tweeted before adding: “let’s not forget the cover of (& interview in) Vogue Japan and Time Mag!”
Osaka responded to Kelly’s comment in a since-deleted tweet and then blocked the journalist.
Kelly reacted to that by saying: “Poor @naomiosaka blocked me while taking a shot at me (guess she’s only tough on the courts). She is apparently arguing that she shot her many covers b/4 publicly claiming she was too socially anxious to deal w/press. Truth is she just doesn’t like Qs she can’t control. Admit it.”
Mental health issues like social anxiety are invisible conditions. Because of this, many people’s experiences with them are often questioned or not believed. This is especially true when someone is high-functioning ― in other words, they appear fine, so others think they must not really be suffering. This is exactly what Kelly implied with her tweets.
In reality, you can struggle at times with your mental health condition and still perform well in your everyday life. “Just because mental health problems are invisible illnesses, doesn’t mean the problems are any less present or important,” Gold said.
Piers Morgan shamed female public figures for opening up about their mental health.
Yet again, Piers Morgan couldn’t help saying the wrong thing about women, mental health and women who talk about their mental health.
In a Daily Mail column he authored in June, the TV personality called Osaka an “arrogant spoiled brat” for opting out of the French Open as a way to manage her anxiety.
Morgan aired a similar, hateful take on Biles. When the gymnast was awarded Time Magazine’s 2021 Athlete Of The Year, Morgan said that she was being rewarded for “quitting.” And of course, he also sneered at Markle’s interview with Oprah in March.
“If mental health stigma didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have patients ask me to write disability letters for their broken leg from a year ago, instead of their depression.”
Tucker Carlson mocked Pete Buttigieg for prioritizing his well-being and taking paternity leave.
In October, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson aired a segment on his show in which he derided Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking time off work to be with his newborn child.
“Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it. Trying to figure out how to breastfeed; no word on how that went,” Carlson quipped.
The problematic comment speaks for itself in numerous ways. According to Smiler, it also undermined the mental health benefits of taking time off when you’re a new parent. “It’s like Carlson was saying that guys shouldn’t take time to be happy or be involved in their children’s lives, even though we know that being a father is the highlight of many men’s lives,” Smiler said.
Where We Go From Here
The biggest shift we need to make is in how we talk about and depict mental health and what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues (and survive).
“Because of portrayals in the news, people worry about specific diagnoses and that can be hard to discuss and have people feel good about the ‘labels’ of their diagnoses,” Gold said. “If mental health stigma didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have patients ask me to write disability letters for their broken leg from a year ago, instead of their depression.”
But it’s not enough to bring awareness to mental health conditions. We also need to change what we define as “weak” and “strong” in our culture, Smiler said.
“Strength actually comes from doing the thing that is perceived as being most difficult ― to talk about and get support for your problems. It says that vulnerability and authenticity are necessary parts of becoming stronger. This is no different than overcoming a physical injury ― we have to rehab that muscle or bone from its weakened state to make it stronger.”
So, here’s to 2022. May the good moments get better and the garbage ones stay in the trash, where they belong.