The big story out of the Olympics this week was that U.S. Women’s gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition in the middle of it and eventually withdrew from more of the Olympics. Her reason was she was prioritizing her mental health because she was struggling. I would like to talk this week about the importance of prioritizing mental health and what athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka (tennis player who recently withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health) teach us about listening to our instincts instead of giving into outside pressures.
I have been happily watching the Olympics and planned to talk about it for my extra pop culture post, however I want to talk today about not just the Olympics but really what watching the Olympics shows us about how little we (as a society) prioritize mental health.
After I experienced my severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and coma nearly five years ago, I have been seeing a psychologist on a regular basis. Seeing a psychologist was a part of the rehabilitation program through my hospital that I was in post accident. I was assigned visits with my psychologist automatically as part of the out patient program of rehabilitation. The psychology visits were assigned along with other rehabilitation therapies like speech, occupational and physical therapy. While I have stopped seeing my speech, occupational and physical therapists (I “graduated” from each therapy and can revisit them again if I like) I still see my psychologist. I am very happy that this hospital rehabilitation program integrated and prioritized mental health and recovery right along with all the other therapies. Before the accident I had been to therapy a few times but never on a regular basis. After my experience seeing a psychologist on a regular basis now I can’t speak highly enough of the process.
The reason I mention my history with therapy is because (in my opinion) we don’t put a priority on mental health in our society and it’s my experience with how helpful it is that really makes me question WHY THERE IS STILL STIGMA ATTACHED TO MENTAL HEALTH. It’s troubling. When U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic performances this week after experiencing a moment of mental distraction that could have proven to be dangerous, the dialogue surrounding her decision was filled with words and phrases like “quitter”, “just a mental issue,” etc. (I saw these words used to describe Biles on social media and in mainstream media). Gymnastics and sports in general don’t accommodate for much more than physical injuries. I don’t feel like researching that statement and throwing a lot of examples at you (One example: Naomi Osaka being fined for not doing press during the French Open for mental health reasons, etc.). The key example that affects the Simone Biles story is that USA Gymnastics allowed Larry Nassar to work with their athletes even when there were questions about him (it was revealed later USA Gymnastics “had an executive policy of not reporting allegations of sexual abuse to authorities,” read about that here.) USA Gymnastics should have been protecting the athletes. This story comes full circle when you realize Simone Biles is one of the only victims [of Nassar] to still be competing and she was quoted as saying she wanted to compete in Tokyo to keep people aware and talking about the sexual abuse of Nassar. In an interview in April with Hoda Kotb on The Today Show Biles said, “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport they would’ve just brushed it to the side.” (This USA Today article gives a good overview of the abuse in USA gymnastics.)
What happened to Biles when she withdrew from the team competition in the middle of it was that she was experiencing something called “The Twisties.” This article describes very well what happened to her during the vault and why it makes sense that she withdrew. I find it fitting given how disconnected society (especially sports) is with mental health that instead of saying someone is mentally distracted that the gymnastics world has a cute name for it, “The Twisties.” The press I saw about Biles after she withdrew from the team competition focused more on this cute phrase than the actual mental health root of it.
[I apologize if I am not writing very clearly about this topic. There is a lot to discuss with mental health and I think because it often isn’t talked about frequently means it’s more complicated to unpack it in a coherent way when we do talk about it.]
What I mainly wanted to say is that mental health should always be a priority. Now that I am in consistent therapy I feel like I now have the words and tools to discuss my own mental health and my own needs in a clear way that I didn’t have before therapy. And if Simone Biles this week and Naomi Osaka (during the French Open and now as she continues to compete) can teach us anything, it’s that the more vocal you are about prioritizing your mental health, the better. Society will still not understand (because there still definitely is stigma attached to mental health) but listening to your instincts in regards to mental health is much better than ignoring them and giving into outside pressures.