July 28, 2021

What Simone Biles’ Olympic Exit Teaches Us About Mental Health

Simone Biles cheers for her teammates during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Simone Biles, heavy favorite in women’s gymnastics at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and often referred to as the greatest gymnast of all time, has withdrawn from the US team and individual all-around competitions citing mental health concerns.

Empowered by Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open in May and skip Wimbledon for mental health reasons, Biles made the difficult decision to take a step back after feeling emotionally overwhelmed and “off”.

Biles is not alone in a long line of Olympians who have felt the toll competing at the highest level can take. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has spoken openly about his struggle with depression and voiced his support and understanding for Biles’ decision.

“We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So, yes, it is OK to not be OK,” Phelps said. “It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

Why is it important to prioritize mental health?

Americans seem to recognize the importance of making mental health a priority, but few are taking steps to improve. Studies show that 95% of Americans agree that mental health is important, yet only 26% prioritize it. 

There is growing evidence to suggest that taking care of your mental health positively impacts physical health as well. Positive psychological wellbeing is linked to reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, decreased likelihood of smoking, and drastically reduced sleeping problems

Why don’t more Americans prioritize their mental health?

It’s clear that we want and need to prioritize our mental health, so why aren’t we? 

As much progress as we’ve made culturally in the past couple of decades, stigma still exists. Stigma often comes from a lack of understanding or fear. According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma related to mental illness is universal, and inaccurate portrayals in the media may contribute to misinformation and perception. 

Adding to the stigma, prioritizing mental health is often viewed as selfish or weak, as evidenced by the strongly divided opinions relating to Biles’ controversial decision. 

“I applaud [Biles’] decision to prioritize her mental health over the expectations of other people,” said Trenten Hale, APRN, mental health nurse practitioner at Baptist Health Medical Group Behavioral Health. “It all comes down to self-awareness and mental strength. Some people will say if she was mentally strong she would have “pushed through”. But saying “no” often takes more strength than saying “yes”.

Furthermore, one in ten people expressed confusion over how to get started as a barrier to taking charge of their mental health. 

We Believe in Healthcare for the Whole Person

At Baptist Health, we focus on the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. Our behavioral health services provide care for individuals dealing with mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol dependency. With treatment plans tailored to meet each person’s needs, we help our patients understand and manage their conditions. Get started by finding a provider near you.

How do you prioritize mental health?

The good news is that prioritizing your mental health is easier than you may think. Here are some strategies you can employ if you’re struggling to find balance or manage symptoms of burnout or mental illness. 

Get moving. While exercise has obvious physical health benefits, even light exercise such as getting outside to walk can boost your mood and help reset focus. 

Get adequate sleep. A good night’s sleep is considered seven to nine hours for adults. Getting enough sleep – especially REM sleep – helps the brain process emotional information and store thoughts and memories. Lack of sleep negatively impacts the storage of positive emotions, which affects mood and emotional reactivity, and is tied to mental disorders. 

Try relaxation techniques. Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, journaling, and other stress-relieving activities can help calm anxiety, ease depression, and improve overall mood.

Practice saying ‘no’. Overcommitting is a common cause of stress. Fear of letting others down and the desire to succeed often lead us to take on more than we should. Evaluate the responsibilities and obligations on your plate and determine which are essential, and which can be let go.

Connect with others. Relationships are key to strengthening emotional health. Regularly spend time (preferably offline) with positive, loving people you trust. Talking with friends and family can help you feel less stressed and allow you to gain perspective. 

Get professional help. Sometimes it’s necessary to seek the help of a professional. A counselor or therapist can use therapeutic techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to help teach coping skills, build awareness, and find new ways to behave by changing thought patterns. A provider may also prescribe medication to help with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. 

Learn More and Get Help from Baptist Health

While it might not come naturally, prioritizing your mental health is essential to overall well-being. Simone Biles and athletes like her are shining a light on the need for more mental health awareness and action. 

“We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back . . . I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped,” Biles said. “I have to focus on my mental health.”

Learn more about the Behavioral Health services at Baptist Health, or find a behavioral health provider near you. 

Next Steps and Useful Resources:

Suicide Awareness and Screening
Can Exercise, Breathing Techniques and Meditation Improve Anxiety?
How Can You Help Someone with Depression?
[PODCAST] Radical Acceptance: Youth and Mental Health
Is Stress Affecting My Sleep?

Learn More.