I have previously blogged about my belief that when famous people talk about mental health issues, the world listens. After reading the article about Simone Biles that appeared in Time Magazine (December 27, 2021/January 3, 2022), my belief has been reinforced.
Simone Biles is a world class athlete, the best of the best. Having been trained to be in control at all times and to stay focused on the “win,” Biles found herself having mental issues as she performed in Tokyo, Japan this 2021 Olympic season. Given the pressures that are put on athletes to perform, one could reasonably have assumed that Biles would have just pushed forward, not willing to “quit’ in front of the watching world. Instead, she paid attention to what her mind and body were telling her, and then she told her teammates that her mind and her body were not in sync and she would not be able to continue to compete with the team. Continuing to try to perform would have put Biles’ safety at serious risk. In front of the entire world, and knowing she would be judged for her decision, she stood strong, chose to consider her own well-being first and removed herself from the competition. Imagine the pressure. Some people, unable to understand the importance of mind/body synchronization when performing, immediately saw this as quitting. However, this decision had the same merit as a decision to withdraw because of a broken bone. This action was not quitting! This was a decision made to protect herself.
Imagine how hard a decision that was for Simone Biles, who had practiced her whole life for the Olympics, who had become a world champion, who was expected to win 5 medals at the Olympics, and then having to decide to withdraw for her own safety, health, and well-being. What would her teammates think? What would her coach think? What would her parents think? What would the world think? What would all those little girls think of their hero and role model? But instead of dwelling on those “what woulds,” Biles made a decision that was right for her and with which she was comfortable, and because of that decision, I think that Simone Biles provided a more meaningful role model for her teammates, the world, and all those little girls when she decided to take care of her mental health rather than continuing to compete and presumably winning all the medals she was expected to win. She let the world know that it is okay to have a bad day. She let the world know that one should speak up if things are not okay. She let the world know that it is okay to be imperfect. She let the world know that anyone can have an emotional problem, and having that problem does not reflect a weakness in one’s character. Facing the problem actually shows strength. Caring for oneself shows strength. Simone Biles’ response to her situation will not prompt a sweeping change in people’s comfort level with the mental health conversation, but it will move the meter a little bit forward, and with each advance of that meter the conversation becomes easier to have.
Simone Biles’ decision to take charge of her life and take care of herself showed an enormous amount of strength. That strength offered the world another chance to have a conversation about mental health. The more these conversations happen, the more people will begin to hear and absorb the message that mental health is not a pariah and is treatable. It is not a sign of weakness to confront and acknowledge a mental health issue. Anyone can have mental health challenges. And the more often the subject of mental health becomes a topic of conversation, the quicker the subject will become more comfortable to discuss and easier for people to acknowledge, and we will continue to erode the stigma that is still attached to having mental health challenges.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute on Mental Health