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5 Mental Health Lessons We Can Learn from Simone Biles

Key takeaways following the champion's historic Olympic decision.

Key points

  • Earlier this week, Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, made the decision to withdraw from the Olympic all-around finals.
  • Biles has openly addressed her mental health struggles before and has taken a stance against mental health stigma.
  • Biles' actions show that pressure affects everyone, and that a perceived discrepancy still exists between mental and physical health.

Earlier this week, the most decorated gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, made a historic decision to step down from the team and individual all-around finals at the Olympics. This unexpected move has shocked people across the globe, but it has also resonated with those who live with mental health problems. Here are five key lessons we can take from Biles' experience.

1. You can be successful and have a mental health diagnosis.

While Biles’ decision to withdraw from the all-around finals was breaking news, so was her openly addressing her mental health was not. Like other athletes who have spoken up about mental health, Biles has openly addressed her mental health struggles before. After hackers released her previously confidential diagnosis in 2016, Biles took a stance against mental health stigma via Twitter.

Twitter/@Simone_Biles
Source: Twitter/@Simone_Biles

In addition to her confirmed diagnosis, Biles’ past, which involved enduring the foster care system and bullying, have served as additional stressors for her well-being. Yet despite this, Biles has become a world-famous athlete. Biles dispels the stereotypical views of what it means to have a diagnosis and serves as an example that you can live with mental health problems and strive for your dreams.

2. Pressure affects everyone.

Athletes minds’ are underdogs in their own right. While athletes are celebrated for their physical abilities, the luster of such talents would fall short without the depths of their dedication, discipline, and diligence. In addition to training their bodies, they condition their minds. As they do their best to “keep their heads in the game,” they become adept at tuning out distractions, bouncing back from blunders, and keeping their eyes on the prize.

Despite how formidable an Olympian’s mind can be, it is not impervious to pressure. Earlier this week Biles shared on Instagram about the “weight of the world” on her shoulders.

Instragam/@SimoneBiles
Source: Instragam/@SimoneBiles

Her words illustrate the ability of pressure to take its toll on even the most durable minds. It's a helpful reminder that no matter who you are, stress is pressure for anyone. It is only human to feel the influence of pressure over time and is not a sign of weakness.

3. An individual’s mental wellness does not exist in a bubble.

While the news of Biles’ decision has unsurprisingly scaled a wide variety of headlines across the globe, it seems as though the particular timing of Biles’ decision may be overshadowed by the momentous decision itself.

Yes, Biles cited the value of her well-being, but she also noted her unwillingness to jeopardize a medal for the team. Shortly following a moment on the vault that did not go as planned, it looked as though that was the final confirmation she needed. Biles later admitted to realizing she was not in the right headspace, and that this could affect her team.

Often, individuals, especially athletes, will push through their difficult moments for the sake of their team. However, in this instance, Biles was cognizant that the fragile state of her well-being could negatively affect her and her teammates as well. As a licensed mental health therapist, I will say that it’s common for people to take their well-being more seriously when they consider the consequences for others. For Biles, this acknowledgement helped her to better help herself and her team too.

Wikimedia commons/Danilo Borges
Source: Wikimedia commons/Danilo Borges

4. Collective trauma comes with unique consequences.

In addition to being open about her mental health, Biles has also courageously spoken about her sexual abuse by former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar. There are a variety of therapeutic strategies to treat trauma, and no one method will work for everyone. In a way, each individual has to find their own truth. What is common, however, is that this is often a long-term process that can be triggered despite the years since the trauma itself.

In April, Biles acknowledged that her return was fueled by the recognition that she would be the only survivor still in the sport. Trauma is already complicated; however, Biles recognized the historical pattern of muting survivors of sexual trauma and felt a social responsibility to contribute to awareness. Further, her decision to be involved highlights a distinct challenge that comes with collective trauma: the responsibility to find resilience for yourself, for fellow survivors, and for a wider cause.

5. A discrepancy between the seriousness of mental and physical health still exists.

Unfortunately, Biles’ decision has not been without criticism. Biles has been labeled a “quitter” and jeered at for bringing shame to her country. Would these comments be the same if she had broken a bone on Monday?

As a global society, we have made tremendous strides in terms of mental health awareness and education. However, the persistence of this stigma-sprinkled negativity is representative of one of the key reasons it is difficult for individuals to seek help. In order to invest in growth, one has to acknowledge that there is a problem. However, if such concerns are minimized and ridiculed, it’s understandable that an individual would experience hesitance or even denial. This example of stigma doesn’t only affect Biles, but thousands of others who struggle silently with concerns due to fear of speaking out, seeking help, and tarnishing their reputations.

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