How one of the biggest gymnasts and Olympians brought light to important conversations on mental health and how they can impact teenagers.
TW: Mention of abuse, mental health disorders (anxiety, depression, ED’s)
On 26th July 2021 during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles decided to withdraw herself from the all around team finals. The gymnast from the United States of America announced after the first equipment that she would no longer participate in the rest of the rotations. She later withdrew also from the individual all around finals and was deciding if she would take part in the individual equipment finals. Initially it was being circulated that this was due to something physical such as an injury, however, later it was confirmed that Biles had withdrawn due to her mental health. Biles, the four-time Olympic Gold medalist, said that she was not in the right state of mind to continue the competition even getting the “twisties” which is a mental block that puts a gymnast’s mind and body out of sync which can cause enormous injuries.
She told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s “TODAY” that “Physically, I feel good. Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star of the Olympics isn't an easy feat. So we're just trying to take it one day at a time, and we'll see.”
Biles was one of 150 victims that have come forward against Larry Nassar for molestation, he is the former doctor for Team USA gymnastics which has since been sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in 2018. Biles states that this took a large toll in her mental health.
Her decision to step away from the competitions had both positive and negative responses around the world of sports and the rest of the world. The positive responses came from her teammates, trainers, and countless people, being celebrities or not. People such as Adam Rippon, Meghan McCain, Amanda Gorman, and former Olympic athlete Michael Phelps spoke out in support of Biles withdrawal. Simone’s trainer, Andrea Orris, posted the following in defense of Biles decision:
“We are talking about the same girl who was molested by her team “doctor” throughout her entire childhood and teen years, WON the World All-Around Championship title WHILE PASSING A KIDNEY STONE, put her body through an extra year of training through the pandemic, added so much difficulty to her routines that the judges literally do not know how to properly rate her skills because they are so ahead of her time, and countless more obstacles that we may not even know of. All of this while maintaining her responsibilities to her endorsement deals, the media, personal relationships, etc. And some people can still honestly say, “Simone Biles is soft. She is a quitter.” That girl has endured more trauma by the age of 24 than most people will ever go through in a lifetime.
For non-gymnasts who may not understand, the fact that she balked mid-air and accidentally did a 1.5 on her first vault instead of a 2.5 IS A BIG DEAL. It’s TERRIFYING. She could have been SEVERELY injured getting lost in the air like that. The fact she somehow landed on her feet shows her experience and is incredible. The margin for error on a skill like that is insanely low. A very small wrong move, and career-ending or even worse, life-threatening injuries can occur.
After her track record of all she’s pushed through - the fact that she took herself out of the competition on her own merit means that whatever she is dealing with internally has to be insurmountable and should be taken seriously. Despite what she’s able/choosing to articulate to the public in interviews, we will never know or fully understand her personal choices and struggles. She deserves respect. She deserves compassion. She does not deserve to have any judgment passed - number 1, because she’s a human. And number 2, after all, she’s done for the sport. Plus all that she’s had to endure BECAUSE of this sport, and the joke of an organization who PROTECTED her predator instead of her and her teammates for years.” 
While a lot of the support was positive, there were people calling her “a quitter” and that we’re saying that she was not supportive of her country. Clay Travis, who works as a sports commentator at Fox, a known conservative TV station, said that Biles had been held to a different standard and said she should apologize to her fellow gymnasts for ‘quitting’. He said: “She wasn't there for them, and that represents a fundamental breach of the most important aspect of a team sport.” Charlie Kirk went even further in his podcast, calling Biles “selfish”, “immature”, “a shame to the country”.
Biles took a large and important step by prioritizing her own mental health over the needs of others, opening the talk about the importance of mental health for athletes and just overall people. She follows Naomi Osaka’s decision this year to withdraw from tennis tournaments to protect her mental health, Biles said that Osaka was an inspiration for her.
Earlier this year No. 2-ranked player in the world, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from the French Open and also withdrew from Wimbledon to prioritize her mental health. She wrote in times that, “I do hope that people can relate and understand it's OK to not be OK, and it's OK to talk about it. There are people that can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.” Osaka was explaining that the press conferences during those tournaments are what got to her the most, as she wishes that the press conference would evolve and become better for the athletes and the interviewers. She received a lot of backlash from people not understanding and supporting her decision, especially from the press, which was offended that she would not participate in the traditional press conference that they held and were extremely defensive about.
After her decision, Osaka said that she realized that, “It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross-section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.” Osaka also wants everyone to know that “Athletes are humans too!”
These two women have started the talk about mental health and athletes, and that can spread into other factors of our society. Mental health is an extremely important part of someone's life and should have the same weight as physical injuries. As mental health starts getting destigmatized, improvements are happening, however, there still is a long way to go.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year. Based on a study from the Archives of General Psychiatry, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. These statistics show how important mental health is.
“The rise in mental health disorders among teens has shown a direct correlation to the increase in teen suicide. Recent data shows suicide as the second leading cause of death among teens ages fifteen to nineteen. Only accidents outpace the current suicide rate. As recently as 2017, the Centers for Disease Control reported the suicide rate among teens was 10.6 deaths for every 100,000 teens.” The decline in mental health in teenagers can be due to: busy schedules and pressure to succeed, social media, underdeveloped coping skills, relationship difficulties, trauma, and the ongoing stigma around mental health. All of which the COVID-19 virus has increased exposure to and made it even harder for teenagers needing help to reach out and get the help they need.
In teenagers, the most common mental health disorders are depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Today, depression and bipolar disorder affect approximately 14% of adolescents between ages 13 and 17. With anxiety, approximately one in three teens meet the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders by the time they reach the age of 18. “The most common eating disorders seen in teens ages thirteen to eighteen are Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge-eating disorder. Although adolescent girls are at a higher risk, almost three percent of teens will be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Depending on the severity of the disorder, treatment is essential, as life-threatening medical conditions can result.”
These statistics for mental health disorders are incredibly high, which probably means that over the course of a life, a person will face a mental health disorder or know someone who faces one. To be able to further help, here are some tips:
Know the symptoms and signs of different mental health disorders, this allows you to be able to more easily identify what is happening to yourself or someone close to you.
Follow accounts in social media platforms that talk about these specific mental health disorders of just mental health in general as that can take some of the stigma that still exists around mental health
Consider talking to someone that you are close to and can trust, this can help take some of the weight out of your back
Highly think about treatment with a licensed psychologist as they are the main people that will be able to help. The faster treatment starts the earlier healing and coping can start happening, therapy is not always easy but the results can definitely help in the long run.
Prioritize your mental health, everyone deserves to be able to put their mental health first!
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have started the talk about mental health, to be able to continue taking away the stigma the talks must continue.
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