When it comes to mental health — Simone Biles is still golden
Simone Biles’ decision to put her mental health above medals should be a lesson for us all.
When the alerts on my NY Times, BBC, NPR, and Twitter apps all chimed in rapid fire my first thought was: “What (new) political, environmental, or social nightmare is about to take over summer?”
Like many people, I was not expecting the words “Simone Biles drops out of team competition citing mental health.” Unlike others however, I was less surprised it was actually happening.
After all, 17% of youth ages 6–17 in the United States will experience a mental illness in a given year. For adults it will be 1 in 5. Anxiety and depression are the leading mental health challenges for both groups. These numbers are probably low considering many people still don’t seek help or become formally diagnosed due to continued stigmas (NAMI). This is especially true for minority groups who also battle inadequate care and greater exposure to risk factors.
So when the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport, who by the age of 24 had never lost a competition, was sexually abused by her organization, and is a black woman in the United States, declares she needs to step back from competition to care for her mental health, color me less than surprised. And extremely proud.
Because as a regular, average person living with mental illness I understand the courage, determination, sacrifice and struggle it takes to both continue on with “everyday life” and to step back from it.
Over the years more and more high performing athletes are coming forward to share their battles with mental illness. Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams are just a few. To say public reactions are mixed is simplifying things to the extreme. In general, these admissions seem to have a heavier effect on the public than when artists, writers or singers share their mental health stories (part of this is no doubt due to the tortured artist stereotype).
It seems we expect more from our athletes, a physical and mental toughness that is taken for granted. “How could someone compete on a world level,” we seem to subconsciously wonder, “if they are anxious about bringing home the gold?” It doesn’t appear to be possible. Yet here we are, with athlete after athlete sharing their mental health struggles from having to be beyond prefect for so long. In some ways, each athlete that does is seen as taking themselves off the podium of perfection on which audiences have placed them.
For Simone Biles it has brought unnecessary criticism, backlash and trolling. It’s as if taking care of her mental health, and by extension her life, is not a valid reason to take a pause.
“Lost in the air” — Natsia Liukin called it.
I immediately understood, regardless of the fact that I’ve never vaulted on the world stage. With that one statement Ms. Liukin summed up a lifetime of living with severe mental illness.
The sensation of being mid-air and unsure of anything — where the ground is, which direction the sky should be, if turning right or left will bring safety or breakage — could describe most of my existence. There have been times when determining what to wear has been an insurmountable task and traveling a foreign country for 3 weeks as easy as breathing. I have spent nights agonizing over a mistake made in elementary school, years frozen in consideration to leave a job, and milliseconds picking a car. My brain makes nothing truly easy or peaceful, it’s a twisting mess.
I’m in the air constantly unsure of where I will land.
Decades had been spent pretending I could spot my landing. At work I had perfected the shiny exterior: made up face, cheery clothing, fashionable heels, a quick and sure footed pace. Jokes and laughter, waves and smiles all presented to the judges of everyday life. There came a day though, there usually does, when I pushed myself too far.
This is the double sided coin of mental illness. While it’s true you can’t allow mental illness to keep you from living, you also cannot continue to push yourself and be “stoic” for appearances and judges.
It’s a fine line, that one between actively living your life and putting on the show to prove you are fine. Mental health is continually stigmatized, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and overlooked.
The struggles with one’s mental health are personal to each individual. With so many factors, triggers, reactions, and treatments it will never be possible to fully understand the mental health journey of any one person. The best you can do is try to understand and empathize. Regardless, there are commonalities and putting on a face and continuing is a big one.
It’s ingrained in our culture to persevere, to keep calm and carry on. Put on your brave face, be courageous, conquer it all. Push and push til you reach the top. Don’t let them see you suffer/cry/fail.
It’s a dangerous game to play when it’s your mental health. You have to be able to trust your thinking, because if you can’t trust that, well, where does it leave you?
All the decades of living while lost in the air didn’t make me any better at spotting the landing. I finally crashed, wrecked. In hindsight, I should have pulled back.
Like Simone Biles did. She recognized that to push through at a certain moment may lead to wreckage, and it was avoidable. So she avoided it and took care of herself both mentally and physically, for her present and future.
And in doing this, she once again proved herself to be the greatest in her sport — and beyond.
If you or someone you know is with dealing mental health issues please reach out, there is help: