As not only a mental health professional but also a fellow human, I applaud the incredible courage, strength, and self-care shown by Simone Biles for her decision to withdraw from the Olympics’ gymnastic final due to prioritizing her mental health. The overwhelming support for her decision by The International Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, and her sponsors helps pave the way for society as a whole to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues.
We can all benefit from having mental health back in the spotlight. Personally, I hope the trend continues as we need to dig deeper into our wells of empathy and compassion, along with confronting our fears with curiosity and a desire to increase our understanding. It’s shocking to witness the subsistence of so many misconceptions, stigmas, and shame around mental health and invisible illness—particularly at a time when so many of us have experienced extra mental health challenges during the last year and a half of pandemic life.
I’m constantly saddened by how our society is much more likely to feel empathy for what we can visually see as an impairment or injury, while mental and emotional suffering is so often disbelieved, dismissed, and untreated. Treating so many patients with mental health disorders and/or TBI’s after car accidents, I often struggle to convince insurance companies to cover treatment costs when the injuries are invisible. When a mental health condition is left untreated, it often leads the sufferer to feel further isolation, sink into a deeper depression, and can lead to suicide. The call to action is long overdue.
Professional and Olympic athletes, performers, and those in the public eye face extraordinary pressures to deliver inspiration and entertainment on a daily basis, often at a high cost to their own physical and mental health. Some may argue that the fan adoration, prestige, fame, and money they receive in return make it a fair exchange. However, the value paradigm is skewed. If suffering is inevitable and pain is optional, as the great Dalai Lama once said, do we not bear responsibility for one another to do what we can to protect and support those brave enough to call "uncle" and reduce their risk for further harm or pain, be it physical or emotional?
We relish viewing, living vicariously through, and celebrating others’ skills, talents, and accomplishments. It, therefore, likely serves all of our best interests to provide the same support and care which we would want to receive. Having the opportunity to thrill at the immense talent and wonderous physical prowess of an Olympic athlete should never be at the cost of that athlete’s great suffering through physical or mental health injury or emotional distress. As Simone commented in an article in NBC News, “We’re human too.” We must not forget that. We must remember our common humanity. We are not machines. All of us, Olympian level or not, are complex beings with a need to intricately balance our minds, bodies, and souls with what we wish to achieve in our lives.
I’m pleased to hear that there are increasing mental health supports for athletes, but much more support is needed in all fields. We need to fully comprehend that the unfortunate emotional suffering of one of our greatest Olympians results in mental anguish for us all—the least of which being that we will not have the pleasure of seeing her compete as she normally would.
We can and must do better at prioritizing our mental health, along with our physical health. We cannot continue to separate the mind, body, and soul as they in fact comprise one entity—our whole being. I’ve mentioned it many times this past year, but it bears repeating: It’s okay not to be okay. It is only through allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable and acknowledging when we feel anxious, overwhelmed, or afraid that we have the chance to overcome emotional distress and feel better.
We are here to thrive and fully enjoy both our mundane and miraculous physical and mental achievements. This is an opportune time to increase our efforts to provide mental health supports, continue the dialogue around mental health issues and find ways to reduce misconceptions and stigmas, on an Olympian level. It’s time to go for gold!
Suggested Reading & Resources
Daniella Silva. “ ‘We’re human too’. Simone Biles highlights importance of mental health in Olympics’ withdrawal.” NBC News, July 21, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/olympics/we-re-human-too-simone-biles-highlights-importance-mental-health-n1275224
Elle Reve. “Simone Biles and the ‘twisties’: How fear affects the physical and mental safety of gymnasts.” CNN, July 29, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/28/us/simone-biles-olympics-gymnastics-physical-mental-health/index.html
James F. Zender, Ph.D. (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident. The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.