What Simone Biles Is Teaching the World About Mental Health

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My affinity for the Olympics goes back decades.

I love learning about the athletes’ stories and world-wide backgrounds. Tears are inevitable for me when watching those big moments of fulfilling hard-earned dreams. 

As a kid, I dreamed of competing in the games. My grandmother “judged” my living room ice skating routines after the 1994 winter games. As a sixth grader, I was convinced I would swim for gold after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I taught myself the “breaststroke” that summer, though I wasn’t nearly as fast as I imagined.

The games have been there during hard times. My husband and I packed our house to move to Birmingham during the 2012 Olympics. I was on maternity leave during the 2016 Rio Olympics. I was eager for a much-desired mental escape in 2020, and like many others, was disappointed when the games were postponed. Needless to say, I have been pumped about Tokyo.

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Introducing the games to my son has been so fun this year. I pointed out several of my favorites, and most excitedly, I told him about Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in the world. I couldn’t wait for him to witness such a strong, powerful woman fly through the air.

And Then We Heard the News . . . 

Simone was stepping out of the team competition. 

My initial reaction was disbelief. But as the news sank in, I was filled with compassion and admiration. While watching the competition, my son asked, “Momma, which one is the greatest?” Without hesitation, I pointed out Simone as she stood on the side watching her team. 

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The commentary on Simone’s decision is everywhere this week. The majority of that commentary is incredibly supportive. But unsurprisingly, there is also a disappointing amount of negativity and criticism about this amazing woman. 

I am no gymnast, and I certainly can’t relate to most of what Simone is experiencing. The level of pressure to perform that she is under is foreign to me. I can only begin to understand the risk she takes to perform her routines and how mentally present she must feel to be safe and effective. The expectations that go with being the GOAT–the face of the Olympics during a pandemic is unreal–all while living the intersectionality of being a young, Black, female athlete.

But beyond the games and fame and gold, as a woman living in this world, I feel a deep appreciation for what Simone has done for herself and for all of us this week.

Knowing We’re Not Alone

I don’t know what it is like to be in Simone’s shoes. But I do know how it feels to . . .

    • ignore and betray my own well-being out of obligation to please the people around me
    • be told to toughen up and suppress my feelings to make others more comfortable
    • hear the message that says mental health isn’t as important as physical health, and that it’s worth sacrificing for money, notoriety, or power

Based on the conversations I’ve had with others this week, I know I’m not alone. 

As a mental health therapist, I often talk with clients about prioritizing their mental well-being. Realistically, I know simply talking about self-care is much easier than doing it. Often the roadblock is the societal message saying we’re selfish or weak and need to “suck it up.”

Sound familiar?

Advocating for Other Women

Brave women like Simone, Naomi Osaka, Sha’Carri Richardson, and many others are beginning to use their platforms to speak up about issues of depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma. They are reminding us regularly it’s okay to not be okay. Slowly, the tide is changing how we talk about mental health in America.

Prior to Simone’s withdrawal, I watched an interview where she shared about the impact the sexual abuse scandal involving her team doctor had on her mentally and emotionally. I was amazed as she shared her determination to stay in the sport to continue advocating for the well-being of other young women, particularly women of color. Simone came into these games as an advocate for mental health. She is, without a doubt, leaving the games as an even stronger advocate.

Five Lessons We Learned from Simone This Week

Here are five lessons we can learn from Simone Biles, both for ourselves and to pass along to our children. After all, our children are listening closely.

  1. Mental health is health.

    There is no real separation between mind and body. If one is not well, the system as a whole is impacted. Simone’s decision to care for her mental health is just as valid as any of the athletes who stepped aside due to physical ailments.

  2. Self-care is strength.

    Taking care of myself is not selfish or weak. Often, it takes an enormous amount of strength to listen to and attend to my body, mind, and heart. 

  3. We have the right to rest.

    One of my favorite social media messages from this week says, “If Simone Biles can pull out of the Olympics to take care of herself, you can take your vacation days!” Seriously, I can take time off and still be valuable and good enough!

  4. Ignore the naysayers.

    I chose not to quote or link any negative comments about Simone, because seriously, those folks don’t even deserve the attention. We don’t have to give power to those who would rather tear others down to make themselves feel better. 

  5. Redefine failure.

    Many might say that Simone coming home without gold is a failure. But another perspective is: failure would be coming home having betrayed herself and her needs in the pursuit of gold. When facing the threat of failure, consider a broader perspective that says this failure may look different than you think.

Additional Resources

For additional reading, here are a few resources also making a difference in public messaging about mental health:

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month
The National Alliance on Mental Illness
The Mental Health Coalition

How have the 2021 Olympic Games inspired you? I hope you’ll share in the comments below!

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Katie, a native Alabamian, came to Birmingham in 2012 to pursue a master's from UAB in Mental Health Counseling. She works as a Licensed Professional Counselor in her practice, Present Wellness Counseling, LLC, as well as in a residential treatment center for substance abuse. She and her husband were married in 2007 and have a son, Harpin, who's been keeping them busy since 2016. She is learning daily how to bridge her child development background with real-life motherhood moments, and she is excited to share these experiences with her BMB readers. Katie loves any time spent outside, loves opening her home to share meals with friends, and loves her faith community. She practices yoga and Reiki, and leads meditation groups for developing self-compassion. You can find out more about her practice and her upcoming community trainings at her website, PresentWellnessCounseling.com.

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