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Simone Biles, Mental Health, and the Balance Beam of Life

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Simone Biles competes on balance beam
Simone Biles at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Many of us have taken the last few days to watch some of the Olympics in Tokyo after having been delayed for a year due to COVID. Of the big stories—and there are many—perhaps none is more compelling than Simone Biles deciding for her own physical and mental health to withdraw from the team competition and several individual events where she was favored to win gold. That decision is one she certainly did not expect to have to make a week before.

It is interesting to see the reactions (mostly in support, a few critical) and repercussions of that decision. In many ways Biles’ decision encapsulates a choice we all make, either affirmatively or by the absence of making a decision. Most of us know people who prioritize their mental health. They are those who have mastered the ability to say no to other obligations, while taking the time to say yes to themselves. So, are these people being wise or selfish? As it is said: it depends on your perspective.

Simone Biles is probably the greatest gymnast of all time. She holds the record for the most World Championship medals (25) and the most gold medals (19) in world history for a gymnast of either gender. She was also one of the more than 500 female gymnasts who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar under the guise of medical treatments delivered by USA Gymnastics.

Yet Biles is competing for the U.S., and USA Gymnastics, in Tokyo. That is a complex and terrible burden to carry that few of us could ever imagine or understand, for ourselves or our daughters. The grace by which she has competed and supported her teammates are lessons that will be talked about long after she is retired from active competition.

What lessons can we draw from Simone Biles?

One of the lessons, in my mind, is how to appropriately balance the quest for one more with the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll that pursuit takes on an individual. In one of the most extreme cases of this toll, Russian gymnast Elena Mukhina was rendered quadriplegic at age 20 after being forced by her coaches to come back too soon from an injury and perform a dangerous (now banned) floor jump. She died at 46 years old a testament to the insane pressure we place on athletes to win at all costs.

We also should examine our own reactions to Kerri Strug’s gutsy performance when she helped win gold for the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics. I marveled at her landing that vault on one leg. Now, I am disgusted at myself and her coaches for encouraging such a pathetic disregard for her health and wellness in search of a piece of metal. And yes, Simone Biles was one of the gymnasts who raised concerns of the coaching style of Bella Karolyi and the win at all costs mentality he projected.

So, what lessons does a 24 year old world champion have to teach each of us about prioritizing not only our own physical and—just as importantly—our mental health?

The reality is we, certainly in the United States, simply do not prioritize personal and societal mental health. I could speak of the pitiful resource allocation I witnessed every day working clinically in the emergency department where desperate patients and families turn for help. If you are lucky, you end up in an ER with clinical social workers trained to assist and provide mental health resources to patients in need. Often, however, if you are not planning to immediately harm yourself or someone else, there is likely little support and a long wait for services or appointments once you walk out the door.

Long before individuals turn to the emergency room, they have usually struggled, often for years, on the balance beam of life trying to keep from falling off. While we try to project a public and social media image that “all is well,” the reality is that each one of us struggles from time to time to keep it all together. It is refreshing to see posts where people acknowledge that struggle. When more of us have the courage, yes courage, to put out our true state of mind perhaps we will turn the tide from protecting the image and veneer of being ok above all else.

Taking inventory in my own profession

There are now, finally, articles emerging of those in health care who have shared their own mental health challenges—public awareness is catching up with how those in healthcare can also struggle, with tragic results. Still, sadly, when individuals raise concerns about not being able to take it anymore, they are often shunned by their colleagues or employers.

I would ask that each of us take an inventory of those closest to us. Of the 10 people closest to me, I know at least three who have struggled with depression. All of them have overcome it, some with medication, some with therapy, and others using a combination of many strategies, including exercise and nutrition, to protect and strengthen their own well-being. Having not been personally burdened with this it is difficult sometimes for me to understand and give space and support to those who are going through that valley. Finding compassion and supporting those we love through this process is part of the solution.

For some of my patients, finding that balance is elusive. In our society that “always reaching for more” is a mantra many follow their entire life. “I can’t slow down,” they say. The end of that journey often leads to a few undesirable places, whether it’s the cath lab having a stent placed or simply a slow deterioration in your overall health.

Take time for yourself

Meanwhile, the solutions have been well outlined.

First, take time for yourself, every day. It doesn’t have to be an hour—five minutes will have a remarkable impact when done consistently. Second, find what kind of self-care works for you. Meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, walking, and prayer can all be used to improve your well-being and mental health. Third, know when to ask for help. That means reaching out to a trusted friend or a professional when you are feeling out of control.

A remarkable exclamation point to this story is that fact that Biles, after taking those few days to take care of herself, was able to win a bronze medal in the balance beam. An event she was not favored to win. So many lessons this young woman has taught the world about priorities. Well done Simone!

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