Current events are keeping Holly Brooks busy these days. The two-time Olympian became a licensed professional counselor after she retired from cross-country skiing several years ago, and her Anchorage practice is geared toward working with athletes.
In recent months, stories about mental health have shared space on sports pages with boxscores and game stories: Simone Biles and the twisties. Michael Phelps and depression. And right here in Alaska, Allie Ostrander and eating disorders.
“All of these people are really breaking the stigma about mental health, and I think it’s really cool,” Brooks told a group of West High athletes last week.
Mental illnesses “thrive in secrecy,” she said, and her goal is to help change that.
Brooks, 39, spent last week and the beginning of this week speaking to high school athletes about eating disorders. She made hour-long presentations to cross-country running teams at seven of Anchorage’s eight public high schools and did one via Zoom for a Fairbanks high school.
“In my world, I look at these things as the killer of dreams,” Brooks told the West High cross-country team. “I know teammates, friends and clients who developed really bad habits with their bodies and eating habits.
“... I guarantee if this doesn’t feel personal to you, it affects somebody that you’re close to. One in 10 Americans will be affected by a eating disorder.”
The presentations are a mix of facts and anecdotes. Athletes are 2.5 times more likely to experience disorders than their nonathletic peers, Brooks told the West High team, and anorexia ranks as the second most-lethal mental illness, trailing only opioid addiction.
She told the story of Mary Cain, who as a high schooler in New York ran a 4-minute, 39-second mile — a time that elicited a chorus of “wows” from the students.
Then she told them how Cain’s progress declined when she started training with the Nike Oregon Project where, according to Cain, she was pressured to reach an unreasonably low body weight. She developed a syndrome known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), which can have far-reaching impacts on metabolism, bone density, heart health and, for women, menstrual function.
“Puberty is a high-demand energy state,” Brooks told the students, “and you have to fuel your body properly.”
Among Brooks’ visual aids were posters showing signs and symptoms of various eating disorders. There was also a giant photo of a smiling Ostrander, the Kenai Peninsula runner who turned pro a couple of years ago after winning three NCAA track championships.
Ostrander looks radiant in the photo, taken after a race at Oregon’s Hayward Field this summer and posted on her Instagram account. Brooks held it up to show everyone, using a sheet of paper to cover the message beneath the photo.
“How does she look?” Brooks said. “Happy?”
Then she read what Ostrander wrote beneath the photo:
“... the reality is that I was crying in the bathroom before this race, filled with self doubt and afraid to step to the line.”
“A lot of what we see in social media is the top part,” Brooks told the group, “and what we don’t see is the bottom part.”
As high-profile athletes like Ostrander make their struggles known publicly — as they admit to fear when facing mental-health issues long held secret — others in similar situations often find the strength to also seek help, Brooks said.
“The demand for help and people wanting to seek treatment for eating disorders is astronomical,” she said in an interview prior to her presentations last week. “We’re seeing a 41% increase in calls to helplines, and everyone has a waiting list, including myself.
“I’ve seen a huge uptick (during the pandemic), so it’s hard to say if there are direct correlations with Allie’s problem. I have a ton of inquiries all the time. It makes me feel sad that I can’t be helping more people individually.”
Brooks’ presentations are being sponsored by the Alaska Eating Disorders Alliance (AKEDA) with support from Skinny Raven Sports. Beth Rose and Jenny Loudon founded AKEDA two years ago in an effort to fill what they see as a void in Alaska.
Out-patient care is available in Alaska but there are no treatment centers here. For in-patient care, Alaskans must travel to the Lower 48.
The key, Rose said, is getting people to seek care early.
“This is a critical age,” she said of high schoolers. “Which is why I’m thrilled Holly is doing this. She is an Olympic athlete, a professional athlete, and a trained therapist. She knows how to open doors. I wish we could take Holly to every high school in the state.”
Brooks emphasized the difference between fitness and health, the latter of which includes mental health. “It’s better to be 100% healthy and 80% fit,” she said, rather than the other way around.
She warned girls that if they stop having periods, it could be a signal they aren’t eating enough. She cautioned students about putting too much focus on weight and body shape.
And she reminded them that “food is more than fuel.”
“It’s culture, it’s tradition, it’s family, it’s delicious,” Brooks said. “You are more than your weight or the size of your muscles or your PR.”
Brooks said later that some athletes have approached her after a presentation.
“I’ve had a handful of athletes disclose their eating disorders to me — and they’ve never told anyone, ever,” she said.
She said she has heard from students concerned about teammates and friends, from injured athletes who realize “they deserve and need to eat even though they aren’t working out,” and from athletes who are in recovery “and feel validated and thankful these presentations are happening.”
“The list goes on and on,” she said.
As does the effort to educate. Ostrander and others have helped shine a light on mental health issues faced by many athletes, but when it comes to eating disorders, there is much that remains unknown by the general public, Brooks said.
“I can count on one hand how many clients have heard of relative energy deficiency in sport,” she said.