Unless you have avoided the television and internet, you are well aware of Simone Biles and her choice to step back from an Olympic Games competition. What should have been a celebrated decision has thrust Simone to become the latest face of mental health. Everywhere, people are chiming in their thoughts, and sometimes disappointment, about her choice. What is most concerning is the attention some are getting for their lack of empathy and compassion for the greatest gymnast who courageously made herself vulnerable to the world. She is one of the most decorated gymnasts, but Simone Biles is on the mental health center stage and her accomplishments are ignored. We hope to shed some light on the subject and provide an understanding on why this was a healthy decision for Simone Biles, and any professional athlete, to make.
When Our Mental Health Struggles
Mental health and mental wellness is a subject many have an opinion on but many don’t understand. One of the most frustrating parts about the subject is understanding everyone responds differently to trauma, mental health disorders, and everything else in-between. What one person does, another won’t do. What looks like an insignificant matter can be a massive mountain for another. Everyone experiences sadness, frustration, anger, and fear. It is our responses that tell a mental health professional what can be going on with an individual. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has estimated more than 5 million people were diagnosed with a mental health concern in 2019. With the pandemic beginning its rampage in the US in 2020, it is estimated even more people are suffering from mental health concerns. What the numbers don’t tell you is how many people remain undiagnosed. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around mental health and many still avoid seeking help to overcome an unhealthy state of mind. Most recently, we are seeing many stories of past Olympians who have struggled with their own physical health, mental health, and were pressured to keep going despite an obvious need to step back. So let’s dive deeper into that subject as well.
Mental Health Issues & The Tokyo Olympics
We spoke with Nick Delpopolo, an Olympic Judo star from the US about the latest kerfuffle. This is what he had to say about the news of Simone Biles dropping out of the Olympic games. “Simone Biles has been shredding the game for a decade and she decided she needs to withdraw due to mental health issues. No one should have an issue with her decision. Simone is the epitome of class in and out of the arena, a role model for ALL to follow.”
We agree with Nick Delpopolo wholeheartedly. What is most unfortunate is the opinion that somehow, the Olympians “owe” us their dedication. If they “fail” then they have somehow “failed” us all. This is so far from the truth and we often wonder how we have gotten here. Olympians train in a way the average citizen could not withstand. Their schedules are rigid and so stressful, many would quit long before they got anywhere. Yet, the same people will talk about “rising above the pain” and minimize how an Olympian feels physically and mentally. Dismissing someone’s experience without trying to even comprehend what they are undergoing is the tell-tell sign of a lack of empathy. Sadly, this appears to run rampant in those who we pay most attention to.
It begs the question, how many other athletes at the Tokyo Olympics are struggling to make such a courageous choice? Who has the desire to be able to speak up for themselves and draw the line? If history tells us anything, it’s probably more than we realize. Greg Louganis was an incredible Olympic swimmer for the US Team in 1988 and helped us win the gold for diving. This also came after a scary moment when he hit his head on the springboard. What no one knew was Greg Louganis had tested positive for HIV and a homosexual. In this era, he could not safely speak about his lifestyle or diagnosis. In his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, he talked about the fear he had that someone would contract this disease from his blood being in the pool. The medical team who handled his head wound was also exposed. The amount of terror one goes through when hiding two huge secrets paid a toll on his mental health and wellbeing. Team USA won the gold though, that is what everyone focused on and considered him to be even better. Never mind the head injury could have killed him on its own and those who determine medical clearance didn’t stop him.
An Olympic athlete is often being pushed into excessive exercise, unrealistic diets, lack of sleep, and unhealthy attitudes towards competition. Team United States has a team of health professions to provide medical clearance in regards to injury but often don’t push hard for an athlete to stop performing. Biles’s decision to prioritize her health and avoid a serious medical issue flies in the face of those doctors who usually cower to the coaches.
Thrown Into The Limelight
Olympians are often thrown into the limelight as people prepare for the upcoming games. While they train years in advance, the public often learns about them when they qualify in the Olympic trials Male and female athletes are then thrown into a whirlwind of press conferences and making the rounds of talk shows. Many interviewers will ask them how they prepare for the Games but rarely ask what they are doing for self-care. Competitive athletes and competitive business professionals lead stressful lives with lots of pressure. Fatigue coupled with the need to succeed can add up.
Nick added this about the subject “In Simone’s case, she has worked tirelessly with charities for foster kids. She had to be the figurehead to take on US gymnastics in the Larry Nassar ordeal in which she and the other gymnasts received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. She takes all of the questions from the press with a smile win, lose or draw. She is an advocate for people suffering from ADHD. She has battled and won word titles through numerous injuries. I can’t even begin to think how difficult it must have been to withdraw from the Olympics as we are the reigning team champions and she is the reigning all-around champion. That takes real courage, I’d argue more than having participated. ”
We do believe when the future competitions roll around, there will be more discussion around mental health struggles and well-being. Which is a wonderful thing to be aware of and witness.
The Shifting Societal Views
Mental health needs should come first. On the subject of mental health stigma, Nick commented “Again, I don’t see a reason the mental health of an individual should be anyone’s business unless they have a way to be supportive. It takes many lifetimes to achieve the level of accomplishments of Simone and many other competitive athletes and renowned industry leaders. It’s important for everyone to have some perspective on the struggles that can be associated with that and be kind on social media. It’s tough enough as it is and we never know what someone is going through. If anything, let’s be pumped someone as accomplished as she is saying it’s okay to go through things mentally. ”
We also agree with Nick on this topic but we do want to point out there are more voices speaking about mental health concerns in a supportive manner. We see more people exercise self-care in a healthy way. More people are trying to get adequate rest, eat healthier, and find better coping mechanisms for any high-stress situation. People are learning the signs of emotional panic and finding ways to cope. Mental health concerns are becoming less taboo as more people openly talk about their journey through therapy and mental health care as a whole. No single human person should carry the weight of the world and be supported for taking care of themselves. As with all change, those who are uncomfortable with it will continue to try and dissuade any positive attitudes towards Simone Biles and her making a wonderful decision to care for herself.
How You Can Help
Many folks are now wondering how they can help change the narrative that seems to have taken over. The first thing to note is when something else major happens, people will stop talking about Simone Biles and mental health. You can continue to support mental health awareness by joining local organizations that help those with mental health concerns. You can also practice healthy empathy and compassion for all you come into contact with, even online.
If you, or a loved one, is experiencing any mental health symptoms you should call us immediately. A trained professional can help you determine the best way to promote mental wellness and get you on a healthier path. If you are unsure of how to help a loved one, you can also call to get advice on the next steps.