Simone Biles made waves last week when she withdrew from the gymnastics team final and the women’s all-around finals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health reasons.
The decision was polarizing, but it wasn’t shocking. Biles has created waves in a sea of enduring stigma, in a society that still treats mental health needs like serious character flaws. By prioritizing her wellbeing over her performance, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history has been harshly criticized and labelled as weak. Selfish. A sore loser.
Speaking up for the sake of your health is anything but weak.
“I believe this speaks to the strength of her character and resolve that she was able to pull away from an unhealthy situation, seeking an appropriate break for necessary help,” said Deepak Prabhakar, MD, MPH, chief of medical staff and specialist in sports psychiatry at Sheppard Pratt. “With the intense spotlight she is under incessantly, the easier thing would have been to just go through the motions and perhaps find reasons later for a sub-optimal performance.”
We don’t know the specifics about Biles’ mental health, and we don’t need to. When the need for mental health support is so dire that an elite athlete withdraws mid-competition during the Olympics, it’s on us to respect and support that decision while looking for ways to fight the stigma.
“We as a society should do better and not let the burden of open conversations related to mental health fall squarely on athletes or other celebrities,” Dr. Prabhakar explained. “Let’s ensure that we begin this discussion early, and that we are addressing mental health in our homes, in our schools, and in our communities, just like we discuss anything else.”
Mental health struggles are common but treatable. Help is available. By normalizing the conversation, we empower others to seek the care they need to thrive instead of suffering in silence. By opening up and addressing mental health — just like we do for any physical conditions — we can show future generations that it’s okay not to feel okay.
“She is blazing a path forward while modeling for athletes, especially young girls, that sometimes the right thing to do is to speak up, step away, and shine the light on the team rather than self.”
Biles is not alone. Alongside Olympians like Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, Biles is the latest athlete lending her voice to make the message clear: Mental health is no less important than physical health. In fact, it’s counterproductive to see them both as anything other than simply health.
As Biles looks to compete in the beam final this week, the world is cheering her on — both for her chance in the Olympics and for bringing mental health to the global stage.
Chief of Medical Staff; Medical Director, Outpatient ServicesSpecialties:Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Traumatic Brain Injury, Concussion, Public Health, Sports Psychiatry, Suicide Prevention