Thank you, Simone Biles

Three things Simone Biles' recent decision teaches us about our views on mental health, and why we're better for it

Well, it happened: Mental health took center stage at the Olympics earlier this week, Simone Biles announcing that she was withdrawing herself from the competition because of mental health concerns.

Where before the vast majority rallied behind the athletes who stood up for their mental health just a few weeks ago, the reaction to Biles’ decision has been markedly different from the start. There are, at least, three things we can learn.

LESSON #1: When we hear that athletes are hurt, we tend to assume it’s something physical.

Though the initial reports about Biles stepping down didn’t contain much information, it’s what little information they did share that spoke volumes.

For hours, there were numerous reports about Biles being “injured,” being “physically hurt,” and having a “medical issue,” and only a smattering that said it wasn’t because of a physical injury, but of something else. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps that’s because they didn’t want to make false claims about Biles’ mental wellness without knowing all the facts. That’s understandable, and absolutely what reporters should do.

However, I can’t help but wonder – and I’m curious to know what you think on this, readers – if at least one part of the problem is that an athlete’s physical injury is something we’ve discussed so openly time and time again, that this is the assumption that was made and passed forward. I can’t help but wonder if an athlete struggling with their mental health is still something so new, so foreign a concept, that at least partially why it took so long for people to report and accept this could be the case.

LESSON #2: Being mentally unwell – even just cloudy – can cause physical damage.

Admittedly, another part of the problem could be that Biles didn’t come out and name a known mental health condition or disorder. Biles didn’t say her mental health was suffering in the same way that the athletes before her did. Biles effectively forced our brains to expand our definition of what poor mental health can be – of what it is. This is a very good thing.

For example, Naomi Osaka named anxiety and depression when she said she would be withdrawing from the French Open. Simone Manuel cited depression and an overtraining syndrome as contributing factors to her not qualifying for the 100-meter freestyle finals at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Both referenced diagnosable conditions, whereas Biles just said that her mind wasn’t where it needed to be – and because of that lack of focus, she was a threat to herself physically.

Biles explained that during what should have been a “simple” vault: “I had no idea where I was in the air. You have to be there 100% or 120% because if you’re not, you could get hurt.” 

Many saw it too. Just look at these photos.

LESSON #3: Competition can keep us from doing and saying what’s right.

In seeing these, some might say – and many have – that Biles only looks so upset because she performed poorly. She couldn’t take the pressure of potentially messing up again, so she used mental health as an excuse to bail on her team and her country without getting any pushback.

I don’t like to think that would be the case. But even if it is, that’s dangerous and hurtful language to circulate no matter how hard you’re rooting for team USA. We can never know with 100% certainty what someone is feeling, and as such, we cannot dismiss their claims to struggles with mental health – doing so even in isolated instances still advances stigma.

And, to those people that still feel that way, I think it’s important to highlight just how different these Olympic Games are than any other. This year, athletes are gathering together in a foreign country in the middle of a pandemic, which means that people around them – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – are getting sick, and also that their support systems cannot attend the competition in person. It’s an entirely different and isolating experience.

That being said, contrary to what some are saying about Biles, I contend that because of the bravery she had to exhibit to put physical and mental safety before the potential backlash of millions of spectators, it makes her even more the greatest of all time. She picked up the baton that Osaka and so many others have passed to her, and she’s running with it – in a direction that opens our eyes even more to where we are in our journey to understand mental health now, and where we need to go next so that America can be mental health’s GOAT.