Mental health and physical health shouldn’t be seen as two separate entities. But when it comes to sports and extraordinary athletes, many people still think they exist on two different planes.
On Tuesday, Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics gymnastics team final for her well-being. A Team USA coach reportedly said her exit was “not injury related” but “a mental issue she is having.”
Biles later explained what happened in a press conference. “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out,” she said. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.”
“We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” she continued, noting that she didn’t want to cost the team a medal because of what was going on.
Biles also feared she’d risk injury because of her state of mind. Her decision was reportedly inspired by tennis player Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open for her mental health earlier this summer.
Like clockwork, toxic people on the internet weighed in on Biles’ decision. Some called her weak. Some said she let down her team. Others took issue with how Biles left, comparing it to walking out of the middle of a soccer game or the Superbowl.
Not a single person would bat an eye if Biles had to leave the Olympics because of a broken ankle. You don’t berate an athlete for getting injured on the job. There should be no line drawn between a “mental” or “physical” issue. They’re the same. They’re both health issues.
“When an athlete goes down to an injury during a game, for example, the reaction is oftentimes one of applause and support after they get up or are helped off the field. So should the support be for occasions such as this when, similarly, we want Simone Biles to return healthier and stronger than before,” said Jorge Palacios, a clinical researcher and senior digital health scientist at SilverCloud Health.
It’s because mental health stigma is still so pervasive in our culture that we’re even having this conversation in the first place. It’s the reason so many athletes often don’t speak up until they’re at their breaking point. It’s why people in the sports world still shame players for struggling. It’s why so many keyboard warriors express their disgust with athletes who quit when they’re not in the right headspace. It’s why so many sports organizations are only recently addressing their lack of mental health resources. And it could be the reason why Biles felt the need to explain herself to her teammates and to the press.
“Mental health needs to be recognized as equal in importance to physical health,” said Jill Emanuele, the senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.
“Each person’s mental health is important and necessary to pay attention to, no matter what you do or how famous you are,” she continued. “We want everyone to pay attention to their total well-being, not just their physical health.”
“There should be no line drawn between a 'mental' or 'physical' issue. They’re the same. They’re both health issues.”
Society has certainly made strides in mental health acceptance. However, cases like Biles’ are a clear example of how far we have to go. We urge people to practice self-care and to look after their well-being, but when an athlete does it during a high-stakes moment, we chastise them for it. Do you know what message that sends? It says that we care about mental health, but only under the right circumstances.
But that’s not how our brains work. Mental health issues don’t wait to materialize until it’s the right time. A broken ankle doesn’t happen until after the competition is over. When it does occur, we don’t blame the person suffering for getting out of the game. The best thing to do is take care of the injury before it becomes any worse.
That’s what Biles did. She is basically superhuman when she’s competing ― but maybe her best, most superhuman move of all is happening right now. She’s showing the world that your health is gold, first and foremost.
“Making choices for yourself is never a weakness ... we should know that there is always more to a story and a person than on the surface,” said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.
Choosing yourself and valuing yourself is “never, ever selfish,” Gold added. “It is what we all should be striving for.”