By now most of us have heard of Simone Biles’ choice to take a step back from some of her Olympic gymnastic events and not compete in order to protect and honour her mental (and physical) health. While the world continues to reverberate sentiments from her perceived bravery to weakness and everything in between, we want to focus on why her choice is so impactful. Let’s get this out of the way first: mental health IS health. It is just as much health as physical health. A broken leg isn’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ severe than mental health struggles like chronic stress, anxiety or depression. They are two sides of the same coin and they are inextricably connected to create who we are and how we ‘show up’ in the world every single day. Along with a number of high-profile athletes who have spoken out recently about their mental health (some also pulling out of competitions they’d trained for years for), Simone has reminded us that our mental health is the foundation of our life. Our bodies cannot operate separately from our minds.
Here’s why this kind of example setting is so important:
We are all people first
Athletes are humans too. They are humans first. They deal with the same emotions and struggles we do but often on a very different level. They perform on the world stage more than the average person does. They are under pressure from people they’ll never meet. Collectively, we are all familiar with stress, with family or professional pressure, with the internal desire and drive to find our purpose in life and impact the world with passion. We all want to belong to each other and to care for each other. Athletes are no exception to this. We all deserve the space, time, and privacy to cope with the trials, tribulations, joys, and successes we encounter in life.
We cannot separate our mental health from the rest of our lives
What this means is that we cannot be struggling on the inside yet still expect to keep all of our balls in the air long-term. When we are not honest with ourselves about our feelings and experiences, we deny ourselves our own reality. We lie to ourselves and pretend that we can just squash what we’re feeling down, distract ourselves, move on, and let it pass. What this does instead is make our emotions more difficult to trace, address in a healthy way, grow, and eventually move forward. What’s happening in our minds dissipates into our bodies and shows up in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Simone has reminded us of this. When we’re chronically stressed or feeling like we’re under immense pressure (especially to be ‘perfect’), the connection between our minds and bodies is fractured. Whether we’re at work or at home, we can no longer control the way we perform, react or behave.
In Simone’s case, her job is to force her body into life-threatening positions - and if her mind and body connection is broken, her risk of injury or worse skyrockets. We can think about this metaphor in our own lives: when we’re stressed, we snap at our partners, we forget about a huge work deadline, we feel chronically exhausted or we develop an emotional eating habit. These are all side effects of a struggling inner world - but the good news is that we can work to improve it and get our mojo back.
Judging anyone for standing up for their mental health harms those at risk
Consider the messaging that critics send when they claim Simone pulled out for some “excuse” like she wasn’t doing as well as she wanted to and this was the easy way out or that she was mentally weak. This kind of messaging couldn’t be farther from the truth and harmfully perpetuates the stigma that mental health isn’t important or real. Humans are wired to be judgmental, and because we can’t “see” a struggling mind in the same way we can “see” a broken ankle, it’s common to judge its validity with skepticism. This doesn’t make it right and we know better now. The more society judges (even condemns) public figures for simply taking care of themselves, the harder we make it for people who are also struggling to feel comfortable getting help.
Simone Biles, thank you for your courage to take a stand for your mental health on the world stage. It helps the rest of us be that much braver in our own lives.