Meeting Mental Health Head On

Simone Biles shocked the world this week by choosing her own mental and physical well-being over her pursuit of a gold medal. And in doing so, she reignited the conversation about mental health in our country. Though progress has been made in stamping out the negative stigma of mental health, the backlash Biles received shows the world that we still have a long way to go in understanding mental health needs and how to help people who struggle.

Not a Quitter

There is no doubt that Simone Biles is a superstar. She has earned a combined 31 World Championship and Olympic medals, and is considered the winningest American gymnast. She was projected to add a lot of hardware to her hefty medal collection at the Tokyo Olympics, but after doing one vault in the team competition, she withdrew, citing her health and safety as well as the fact that she didn’t want to jeopardize the ability of her teammates to receive any medal at all. Unfortunately, she has received some backlash from people saying she let down her teammates and her country.

Sports Illustrated reported, "For anyone saying I quit, I didn't quit," Biles said. "My mind and body are simply not in sync...I don't think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surfaces. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health." Although Biles explained herself well, not everyone was convinced that she should have stepped out of the competitions.

Not everyone has turned on Biles, though. In fact, USA Gymnastics has been very supportive. As NPR reported this week, they said "We remain in awe of Simone, who continues to handle this situation with courage and grace, and all the athletes who have stepped up during these unexpected circumstances."

Swimmers Have Feelings Too

This situation with Biles brings to light a conversation which has been ongoing for years about the mental health of athletes and what stars like Biles “owe” to their country. Olympic gymnastics stars are not the only ones who have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Michael Phelps has been dealing with mental health issues and trying to raise awareness for years, even starting the Michael Phelps Foundation to help kids focus on both mental and physical health.

Phelps won a record setting 8 medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but admits that his depressive feelings began after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece and returned after the 2008 Games.

It took him until 2014 to really be able to deal with his situation and face it head on. “That was when I was finally able to really see that this is who I am and it's a part of me and it's not going to go away. So, I need to learn more about it. I need to learn why I work, how I work, why I am how I am,” he explained.

As for what happened this past week to Biles, "I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do," Michael Phelps said. "I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine. This is something that's gonna take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people who are willing to help."

Each Story Brings us a Step Closer to Understanding

Whether because of the mental strain of the pandemic or just because it is time to face reality, other sports stars have come forward recently to talk about mental health and their personal situations.

For Chelsea soccer star Christian Pulisic, it is important for him to share his story and he is a big proponent of going to counseling. "It’s something that can help talk about the way that you’re feeling. Sometimes just expressing how you feel to somebody else can help you so much. It’s something I’ve done personally and seen other people do. Getting it off your chest, speaking about it is something that can go a long way."

For elite athletes who physically push their bodies to the brink, it is time to take mental health just as seriously. By telling their story, these athletes can reduce the negative stigma of mental health problems and offer more understanding to the world beyond the mats and the pool. Athletes are already role models for young people, and this is just another way that they can offer lessons and guidance to those who look up to them.