Flatt Closing in on PhD, Helps to Make Change in Sport

Written by Elvin Walker

It’s an exciting but very busy time for 2010 US Women’s Champion Rachel Flatt.

Since leaving competitive skating a decade ago, the 31-year-old has attacked life with the same enthusiasm as she once did as an athlete. Flatt is currently a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and is on track to receive her doctorate in August.

The 2010 Olympian has successfully balanced the rigors of an advanced degree with a schedule full of lectures, volunteer work, and as an advocate for positive change in sport regarding mental health.

Shot of Rachel Flatt
Rachel Flatt, 2010 Olympian and US champion

“I spent most of my college thinking I would go to medical school, and after graduating and going through the first round of medical school applications, I realized I didn’t have a desire to go to medical school in my heart.” Flat admitted. “It wasn’t quite the right thing for me at the time, so I ended up spending a few years thinking about what I wanted to do.”

During that time, Flatt had the opportunity to participate in digital mental health research at Stanford University that focused primarily on eating disorder interventions for college students. As she was overwhelmed by what she calls “light bulb moments,” Flatt’s vision for the future soon began to come into focus.

“With so many travel demands that athletes often face, and given the specific types of stressors associated with sport in terms of mental health, it became clear to me that athletes could benefit from some tailored digital tools,” she explained. “I will be able to add a lot of value as someone with a mathematical background and having training in clinical psychology and being able to combine those two interests and experiences to provide some value both research and clinically.”

In the digital market, Flatt’s research included studying a globally used self-monitoring app that tracks behaviors related to eating disorders and adapting it to an Apple Watch to collect passive data. This data will then be used to support the reduction of behaviors that could ultimately lead the user down the path of an eating disorder.

“The system will collect passive heart rate and staging data to see if we can predict eating disorders in real time,” Flatt said. “The goal of the foundational study was to eventually be able to predict and intervene in these behaviors now, and thus prevent those behaviors from occurring in the first place.”

As an elite skater, Flatt experienced extreme ups and downs as she navigated the competitive landscape that she quickly connected to her research at Stanford. She was a part of this sport when it was taboo to discuss injuries publicly, let alone the mental health challenges that often seep into an athlete’s life in a controlled sport. Fortunately, Flatt had parents, who tried to make sure she was as normal outside of sports as possible – they encouraged her to eat a healthy diet, go out with friends and pursue interests outside of the rink. However, Flatt was not immune to the pressures of competing on such a large stage.

Rachel Flatt sits on the steps of their home with her husband, Eric, and their dog, Jax
Rachel with her husband Eric and dog Jax

“There were times when some body image concerns came up during my competitive career, and I definitely could have benefited from someone who could have helped me address that issue head-on,” she said. “Having someone there to make sure that I, as a kid who grew up in the public eye, was okay.”

She continued: “In the last several years of my career, I was chronically injured and got to a point where I needed to understand what my body was telling me. In many cases, there was a lot of pressure on me for various reasons to compete when I was injured, and that had a huge impact on me because I felt like I couldn’t talk about it outside of my medical team. I’m so grateful that my mother acted as a gatekeeper and I think that really saved me in so many ways.

Despite some of her own experiences, Flatt sees progress in the sport, especially in the way athletes are having honest and open discussions about their struggles.

“I look back at my career – I’ve been told many times in media training not to discuss physical injuries, and now we’ve gotten to a point where athletes are not only discussing their physical health, they’re talking about these very important topics around their mental health,” she noted. “Whenever we have open conversations about mental health concerns to the degree that it is appropriate and people feel safe and open to share their experiences, it helps them not be ignored or stigmatized.”

Flatt is currently completing her clinical training at Duke University, where she focuses on eating disorder training with an emphasis on working with people with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Once that work is completed in July, Flatt will return to UNC to begin a postdoctoral fellowship that includes three groups — the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute, and the Carolinas Athletics Program for Mental Health and Performance Psychology .

Once her fellowship is complete, Flatt will be eligible to participate in national and state licensing exams, and once she passes, she will be able to officially practice without having a licensed person sign her patient notes.

“I’m excited to combine all of these interests and I’m really lucky that things turned out beautifully for me so I can complete all my hours to get my license,” Flatt said.

In the world of sports, Flatt has already begun giving back by combining her experience as an athlete with her extensive studies in psychology. The 2008 World Junior Champion has worked closely with USA Figure Skating as a member and chair of the Athlete Advisory Committee, helping to ensure compliance with federal Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) mandates specifying athlete representation on all committees.. She was also one of the first athlete representatives to the USOPC’s Task Force on Mental Health.

“Holy smokes. “It’s been busy,” Flatt said of the task force. “Before the task force, OPC had a psychology department, but now they have a psychological services team made up of a number of people with different specialties. We helped by forming the founding principles.” “For what that might look like, we helped hire a Director of Site Services, Jessica Bartley – who is outstanding at her job – and helped us think about digital tools that could support a variety of mental health concerns.”

Although she has paused on some of her non-school commitments for the time being, Flatt plans to make herself available once things start to calm down. She plans to stay in North Carolina after graduation and spend time with her husband, Eric, with whom she will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary in August.

“My husband has a job here, so the plan is to stay in North Carolina for now,” Flatt said. “I’ve really enjoyed my advocacy work with USA Figure Skating and the USOPC, and I know it’s hard to find jobs that focus on the clinical and research aspects, so I may have to be flexible in that regard, but I’m really hoping I can do both.” At least of these three (advocacy, clinical, and research) in my full-time job.

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