On July 27, 2021, United States Olympic gymnast Simone Biles shocked the world when she pulled out of the team all-around competition. As the hours passed, the initial concern over potential injuries that Simone may have incurred blended into the background as fans wondered if there were truly any physical problems at all. In the news conference following the team event, Biles confirmed the growing public suspicion: She had withdrawn from the competition for mental health reasons.
Biles explained in a press conference afterwards, “No injury, thankfully … I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness.”
The Devaluation of Mental Health
Biles’ decision sparked a social and news media hailstorm. Biles received unwavering support from sources as varied as the New York Times praising her for putting “mental health first and the expectations of others, at best, second” to other athletes such as Michael Phelps to even Justin Bieber, who tweeted, “It’s as simple as- what does it mean to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul. Sometimes our no’s are more powerful than our yes’s.” Yet, she also faced sharp criticism and incredulity in response to her claims. Commentator Piers Morgan wrote in a column, “I don’t think it’s remotely courageous, heroic, or inspiring to quit,” and other media personalities such as Charlie Kirk went so far as to warn that “we are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.” The word “weak” is the most indicative of how mental health problems have traditionally been viewed, especially in the realm of athletics. By suggesting that taking care of yourself is weak, those who are struggling often feel invalidated and dissuaded from reaching out for help.
Despite the support and acceptance Biles has received, the continued villainization of her decision to prioritize her own wellness speaks to the continued devaluation of mental health in our society. This disparity can become even more exacerbated for high achievers such as performers or athletes whose career depends on them being pushed to their limits.
Supporting Mental Wellbeing
According to Jessica Bartley, the director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees (USOPC), she and her colleagues received approximately 10 requests daily to help U.S. athletes with their mental health. It is important to note that Bartley and her support team are the first group to come to the Olympics with U.S. athletes specifically for mental health services. The addition of professionals such as Bartley to the services provided to Olympians reflects the USOPC’s growing dedication to prioritizing the mental health of athletes. The USOPC also created a dedicated Mental Health Taskforce in April of 2020 and obtained philanthropic support to create the Mental Health Fund for athlete counseling and mental health support.
Though these efforts are much needed and important, the experience of Biles in the Olympics is just the beginning of a much larger conversation about mental health that the world has shied away from. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that as of 2019, suicide remains the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, and 30% of 18- to 25-year-olds report having a mental health diagnosis in the previous year. Athletes may have even greater pressures on them than non-athletes do. According to a study done by Chang et al. in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, internal traits that can contribute to the success of athletes (such as perfectionism) may also be linked to higher rates of mental health disorders. In addition, response to athletic injury may trigger mental health issues such as depression, suicide, anxiety and substance use in many athletes. The Olympics, often heralded as the pinnacle of athletic performance and showmanship, amplify the intense pressure athletes already face. Athletes typically train for the Olympics for years, and their sponsorships and future career are tied to their performance in those few moments. Biles captured this intense feeling in an Instagram post before she withdrew from these events, comparing the intensity to having “the weight of the world” on her shoulders. The gravity of this pressure is not one that any person should have to bear.
Making Mental Health a Priority
Although Biles sparked a powerful discussion on wellness, she is not the first athlete to advocate for their own mental health. Naomi Osaka is another prolific athlete who has been vocal on her mental health issues. By withdrawing from Wimbledon and the French Open this year due to her struggles, she brought it to the forefront of the public consciousness. In a piece titled “It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.” Osaka emphasizes her point by reminding us that “athletes are human.” She calls for the creation of mental health days as time off from work, just as we get physical health days. Although Osaka faced backlash accusing her of being weak for her decision to withdraw, she remained adamant that if her candor and openness may have saved a life, “it was all worth it.”
Athletes like Biles, Osaka, Phelps and many more have created a space wherein taking a step back can be reframed as a testament to your strength rather than a downfall. In the future, being open and vocal about mental health in a public sphere can make a difference for each individual who is struggling. According to Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “One of the most important coping mechanisms is giving yourself permission to take time off and to take a break and care for yourself.” In the midst of stressful moments, it is important to practice self-care and recognize the strength in taking breaks. Just as Biles recognized that her mental health was a prize much rarer and more precious than anything that she could win, each of us deserves to prioritize our well-being amid the constant demands of our daily lives. It is in these moments of vulnerability and honesty that our fortitude shines through.
Writer’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Helpline: 1-800-273-8255.
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