In late July, the entire world exploded over the news that Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, had dropped out of the women’s team gymnastics competition. Following a botched vault attempt, Biles exited the competition before returning later to cheer on her teammates.

The next day, Biles announced she wouldn’t compete in individual all-around event either. Her announcement was met with a chorus of negative social media responses. While many did take the opportunity to support Biles; the backlash to her decision highlights the need for continued discussion and support for anyone struggling with their mental health.

So, in this article, we’re going to detail seven invaluable mental health lessons we can learn from Simone Biles and her courageous choice to prioritize her mental health.

1.) Success and a Mental Health Diagnosis Are NOT Mutually Exclusive

We deservingly treated Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the all-around finals as breaking news. Still, her using a public platform to address her mental health wasn’t. That’s because, in addition to being the most decorated gymnast of all time, she’s also been outspoken and honest about previous mental health struggles.

On numerous occasions, Biles has addressed her experiences with various mental health issues. In 2016, she talked about her ADHD diagnosis after hackers leaked her confidential medical information. Similarly, Biles has spoken several times about how being in the foster care system and being sexually abused by former US team doctor Larry Nassar has affected her mental health.

Has Biles let any of this psychological trauma slow her down? Not really. Before her recent withdrawal, Biles was almost universally seen as the best gymnast alive, maybe of all time.

So, if you’ve had a mental health diagnosis, don’t hang your head or live with shame. It’s absolutely possible to be incredibly successful while also being diagnosed with a mental health issue. Just like with a physical illness, a mental health diagnosis doesn’t have to define you.

2.) Physical Strength Doesn’t Make You Immune to Mental Health Issues

Often, in our society, we place public figures like actors or athletes on a pedestal. Their physical appearance and strength make them seem impervious to the typical human challenges we all face during life.

But in the past few years, we’ve seen multiple world-class athletes including Kevin Love, Paul George, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles speak publicly about their mental health struggles. Each time, the reaction to these athlete’s honesty has been divisive.

The varied reactions to these world-class athlete’s openness regarding their mental health demonstrate how we, as a society, imbue our athletes with a sense of invincibility that isn’t real. Mental health issues don’t care about your age, gender, race, or level of physical fitness.

3.) Beware the Pitfalls of Comparison

Immediately following Bile’s decision, countless people took to the Internet to applaud and support the star. Still, many others used the opportunity to put down Biles by comparing her decision to Kerri Strug’s decision to vault on an injured ankle in the 1996 Olympics.

But these comparisons ignore both the context of Strug’s and Bile’s decisions, as well as the context of competing in any gymnastics event, without a clear head. This year we saw NBA superstar, Kevin Durant, commit a mental mistake in the playoffs.

At the end of the game, he stepped on the three-point line making his would-be game-winner, a game-tying shot, in a game in which his team would eventually lose. For Simone Biles, a mental mistake could mean catastrophic injury, including broken limbs and even paralysis.

Per Sean Melton, former gymnastics professional, “Your life is in danger when you’re doing gymnastics.” Plus, as mentioned, those attacking Biles by comparing her to Strugs also fail to understand the context of Strug’s performance.

During the ’96 games, the Olympic gymnastics team was still under the tutelage of coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, who were well-known for their punishing verbal and emotional abuse. Strug vaulted, but only after her coaches berated her into the decision.

Additionally, she further injured her ankle due to the vault and would never compete again. Arguably the most unfortunate part of Strug’s story is her team would’ve won even without her second vault!

Comparing yourself to others can lead to mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Similarly, comparing two people’s situations you don’t know can lead to damaging false dichotomy’s that further perpetuate negative stigmas regarding mental health.

4.) Mental Health Can Affect Your Physical Health

Contrary to what many may believe, mental health can absolutely affect your physical health, even if you’re not doing high-flying flips and tricks for your job. Ignoring or neglecting your mental health can lead to serious physical health complications, including:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Sleep issues
  • Chronic fatigue

These physical ramifications very real. And they’re why we should be wary whenever someone talks about the need for those experiencing mental health issues to “suck it up,” “stop complaining,” or makes false comparisons between psychological and physical health. Because your physical and mental health are inexorably linked.

Just as the comparison between Simone Biles and Kerri Strug is a false dichotomy, so too is the comparison between a physical and mental health issue. Your brain is the most critical and physiologically complex organ in your body.

Everything happening between your ears affects what occurs throughout the rest of your body. Therefore, acting as if a bodily injury carries more validity than mental distress is illogical and damaging to anyone with a mental health issue.

5.) Black People in America are More at Risk

As previously stated, mental illness doesn’t care about where you’re from or what you look like. It can affect all of us, no matter our background or support system. Still, those with a particular background or without a solid support system are more at risk to the potential harms of mental health challenges.

In American, for example, the Black community suffers from an increased rate of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression. These increased rates are due to a confluence of historical, economic, social, and political oppression.

To wit, despite making up roughly 13 percent of the country’s total population, the Black or African American community is consistently overrepresented in high-risk populations. For example, Black people comprise approximately 40 percent of the homeless population. Similarly they make up 50 percent of the prison population and 45 percent of children in foster care.

So, not only are Black Americans more likely to experience a mental health issue, they’re less likely to receive treatment. Over the past year, the number of Black people showing clinical signs of anxiety or depression increased by approximately 1.4 million.

Despite this increase, a staggering amount of the Black community goes without mental health treatment. According to a 2018 study by SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), 58.2 percent of Black people between 18 – 25 and 50.1 percent of Black adults between 26 – 49 with a severe mental illness did not receive treatment.

As mentioned, much of this treatment gap can be attributed to historical and systemic racism and oppression. Still, a significant portion of this lack of treatment can also be traced to the persistent, negative stigma surrounding mental health and mental health treatment…

6.) Fight Against the Stigma

As discussed above, the stigma surrounding mental health issues and mental health treatment is very real. And this stigma is actively harmful to anyone experiencing a mental health issue. Also, as mentioned earlier, this stigma can also prevent those with mental health issues from seeking treatment.

Per the Columbia University Department of Psychology, we can destigmatize mental health by helping people, especially those in underserved populations, like the Black community, understand that mental health, like good sleep or a quality diet, is vital to your overall health.

7.) Therapy Can Help!

“Therapy has helped a lot, as well as medicine.” That’s what Simone Biles told the USA Today following her exit from the women’s gymnastics team final. Still, therapy wasn’t a cure-all for Simone, nor is it for anyone else. But it’s one of several proven methods, along with practices like mindfulness and prescription medication, that can help those with mental health issues.

You don’t need to be an Olympic-level athlete to benefit from therapy. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health and would like to explore therapy, contact a Compassionate Minds Therapist today.

Our team of licensed experts can help you through many mental health issues. Plus, at Compassionate Minds, we work with each of our patients to create an individualized treatment plan that works best for you at a time that’s most convenient for you.

About the Author Amber Jurgensmeier

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