By Shayna Bryan, Intern & UAB Community Health & Human Services Student
Simone Biles is an American gymnast with a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. She is widely regarded by many as the greatest gymnast of our generation. Biles was the favorite to win multiple individual and team events in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but shocked the public when it was announced on July 27th that she would be pulling out of the final team competition for undisclosed health reasons. The following day, she pulled out of the rest of her planned events and gave further explanation: She’d been struggling with the immense pressure that comes with her position and could not compete due to physical and mental health issues. With Biles out of the competition, America’s chances of sweeping the gold for Olympic gymnastics all but vanished. This announcement was met with reactions of anger, outrage, betrayal, sympathy, and support. Why the mixed response?
If Biles had broken a bone or torn a ligament that rendered her unable to compete, the American public may have universally replied with kindness and empathy, viewing it as a tragedy. But because Biles’ reasons were partially mental, the feedback was not at all kind. Why such anger? The answer lies in our complicated and at times antagonistic relationship with mental health.
The World Health Organization describes mental health as “the foundation for the well-being and effective functioning of individuals.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults have a mental illness, but less than half of those will receive treatment. This is likely due to the great stigma associated with mental health treatment and the common perception that seeking help is a last resort. As a result, the average delay between onset of symptoms and treatment is 11 years.
This is not at all how we treat physical issues, where prevention and prompt treatment are the norm. There is pressure to keep issues related to mental health invisible. Tough it out. This is especially a common thought among the athletic community.
The whole situation reminded me of a conversation I had about a month ago with Susan Chambers, a friend of mine who competes nationally in powerlifting. She was struggling with her own stubbornness in knowing when to quit and call it a day. When she’s tired and can’t focus, she’s at risk for serious injury which has happened to her in the past. On this day, she asked herself aloud, “Are you actually worried that will happen or are you being lazy and looking for an excuse? What’s the line between self-destructive and dedicated?”
I responded: “Guilt and shame.” If you’re pushing yourself because you feel inspired, all is good, but if guilt, shame, or fear of failure is motivating you, that’s bad. That’s when you risk seriously hurting yourself, mentally and physically.
Sue was silent for a moment, then said, “You win this round of self-care.”
Simone Biles is a gifted athlete who inspires many and will for years to come. She has the grit and determination to become a champion and the deep maturity to know herself and her limits. No matter the full circumstances, Simon Biles does not owe us further details or explanations. She does not need to justify her decision or apologize for the disappointment it caused, because she owes us nothing. She may be our pride and joy, but she belongs only to herself.
I reached out to Sue again for her thoughts on Simone Biles and the public response. She had this to say:
“Knowing your limits and prioritizing your health and well-being is laudable. Simone Biles is a world class athlete under an incomprehensible amount of scrutiny from the public. For her to advocate for herself and her needs was extraordinarily brave. We need more role models like her, who will demonstrate self-compassion as something more valuable than competition. I guess the short form is: She is a champion, and championing her own well-being proves it.”
Similar articles from the Lab:
Take Care of Yourself! by Adrienne Stokes
Serena Williams by Jaelyn Copeland
Sources and Further Reading:
Chambers, S. (2021, June 29). Personal communication [online chat].
Chambers, S. (2021, July 29). Personal communication [online chat].
Choudhry, F. R., Mani, V., Ming, L. C., & Khan, T. M. (2016). Beliefs and perception about mental health issues: a meta-synthesis. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 2807–2818. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S111543
Mental health by the numbers. NAMI. (n.d.). https://nami.org/mhstats.
Ramsay, G., & Sinnott, J. (2021, July 27). Simone Biles withdraws from women’s team gymnastics at Tokyo 2020 Olympics as ROC Wins gold. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/27/sport/simone-biles-tokyo-2020-olympics/index.html.
Riedel, C. (10 August 2019). Photograph of Simone Biles at US Championships. Associated Press.
@USAGym. “After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition. We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.” Twitter, 28 Jul. 2021, 1:14 a.m., twitter.com/USAGym/status/1420266286441922562
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental health. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/westernpacific/health-topics/mental-health.
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental health: Strengthening our response. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response.