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Local psychologist helps Tokyo Olympians with mental health

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Gemma Harris, senior clinical psychologist at Solstice, is working with athletes at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games (Photograph supplied)
Gemma Harris, senior clinical psychologist at Solstice, is working with athletes at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games (Photograph supplied)

A local psychologist landed the opportunity of a lifetime supporting international athletes and world record breakers at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.

Gemma Harris, a senior clinical psychologist at Solstice, Bermuda’s biggest private mental health practice, certainly has her plate full in a year where Covid-19 has added to the regular stresses of competing at the highest sporting level.

Speaking from Tokyo, Dr Harris told The Royal Gazette: “This Olympic Games in particular, with the high-profile coverage of Simone Biles, has really put mental healthcare front and centre.

“Understandably, there are many reasons why mental health was given special consideration this year; Covid has made for a very different games with huge restrictions on movement, daily testing, no family or spectators and the potential to be excluded from long awaited competitions.

“Athletes have also had to deal with the anxiety of whether the games would even happen, all while training and preparing. I personally haven’t been to any other games, but my colleagues that have shared that it is subjectively a very different experience. Previously condoms were freely handed out to athletes, now it is Covid tests.”

Dr Harris said it was “serendipity” that led her to the games having randomly noticed an appeal on a psychologist Facebook forum and successfully applied.

“It seemed pretty lucky at the time, but when I joined the medical team in Tokyo it really dawned on me how fortunate I had been,” she said.

Dr Harris said she worked with a team of international doctors, many of whom are specialists and renowned in the field of sports medicine. “I definitely experienced a bit of impostor syndrome.”

As the only psychologist in the team supporting athletes diagnosed with Covid-19 she counselled athletes who missed their opportunity to compete owing to a positive diagnosis.

“This evokes understandable feelings of grief, sadness, confusion and occasionally protest,” she said.

“Those in team sports report not only sadness but guilt, and tend to question their actions more. What I have been most shocked by is the incredible resilience I have witnessed in these athletes in coming to terms with something so devastating. Most seem to be pragmatic, knowing that the risk of Covid was always going to be unavoidable.”

In the past few years, the International Olympic Committee has increased its focus on mental health and even produced specialist mental health screening tools for athletes, Dr Harris said.

The pop-up polyclinic at the athlete’s village is stocked with the latest medical technology and offers a “safe space” with psychologists and mental health professionals on hand. The IOC also provides a 24-hour mental health helpline.

“Many of the larger teams send mental health staff, in the same way they would send a medic or physiotherapist,” Dr Harris explained. “They also encourage their athletes to make use of wellness apps such as Headspace. It is very pleasing to see just how much mental health needs are being validated and supported.”

While many athletes meet the criteria for problems such as depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or eating disorders, Dr Harris made the point that mental wellbeing is more than just diagnosis.

“For those athletes that are competing for their country in a possibly once in a lifetime opportunity, the pressure must be tremendous,” she explained.

“Even with great mental health, they are likely to have their ordinary coping mechanisms taxed. The use of psychologists to build mental wellness and resilience, as opposed to simply treating mental health problems, is surely the direction we will be working towards.”

Because of concerns about how hosting the Olympics during a pandemic may affect the games and Japan itself, restrictions have been significant and Dr Harris has been limited in what she can do outside work

She will be there for a full month, also supporting the Paralympics, and is hoping to be able to venture further after the event.

She added: “This is certainly one of the most exciting opportunities of my career. Being here on a world stage, mixing with international athletes and world record breakers is pretty exciting. It has also been great to connect with mental health experts in this field and learn about how they work.

“I would certainly do it all again if I get the opportunity.”

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Published August 09, 2021 at 7:54 am (Updated August 08, 2021 at 10:17 pm)

Local psychologist helps Tokyo Olympians with mental health

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