This post, authored by psychology’s Mary McNaughton-Cassill, originally appeared in Psychology Today.
July 28, 2021 — Simone Biles has truly earned the honorary title of the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), but not just because of her unprecedented ability to fly through the air while twisting and flipping. Her true greatness lies in the fact that she has managed to navigate the impossible demands of an insatiable sports juggernaut, without losing her honesty and her humanity. In addition to creating and performing gymnastics skills that no one else in the world can, she has chosen to use her unique position to speak the truth about the abuse scandal that rocked the gymnastics world, to push back against the autocratic rule of Marta Karolyi and USA gymnastics (USAG) and to publicly support the Black Lives Matter Movement.
She broke another barrier in Tokyo when she told the world that her mental health and personal well-being were more important than earning a gold medal for a country and public that want to bask in her reflected glory, without sharing in the sacrifices she has had to make. The skills she performs are literally death-defying. Attempting to perform them when you aren’t mentally prepared can be fatal. When she had trouble vaulting during the women’s gymnastics team finals she didn’t pretend to limp off with a sore ankle or have her coaches make excuses. Instead, she is quoted in USA Today as saying, “Therapy has helped a lot as well as medicine. That’s all been going really well. Whenever you get in high-stress situations, you kind of freak out and don’t know really know how to handle all of those emotions especially at the Olympic Games.” So, she withdrew from the competition in order to prioritize her mental health, and then returned to the floor to support that of her teammates.
Unfortunately, many people will argue that her self-awareness and courage somehow reflect a lack of mental toughness and that the only valid reason for missing a sporting event is a “physical injury.” This, despite the fact that psychologists have known for decades that arbitrarily talking about physical or “real illness” and psychological or “mental illness” is a false dichotomy. The truth is that the human brain is the most complex physiological organ on the planet and everything that happens to us ultimately occurs “in our heads” since the brain is the arbitrator of all that we do. Without a functioning brain we can’t make sense of what we see or hear, we can’t coordinate our movements, maintain our balance, experience emotions, communicate with each other, or think in abstract terms.
When we experience a head injury or illness, or deprive our brain of food, water, or sleep, we can find ourselves struggling with memory, attention, decision making, and communication. When we are in pain, it influences our thoughts and emotions, and when we are upset, it affects the way we perceive pain. Therefore, acting as though a dysfunction in the periphery of the body is somehow more valid than mental distress is both illogical and damaging to all of us. And yet, we do so all the time. When our ankle hurts, we go to a health care provider to find out what is wrong and what we can do about it. But when we feel sad, anxious, or angry we often vacillate between overreacting and trying to ignore these negative experiences. When we do seek help for mental health concerns many of us apologize for our discomfort. Can you imagine opening a conversation with your doctor by saying that you know your foot shouldn’t hurt? Yet, clients routinely come into therapy saying “I know I shouldn’t feel this way but…” Of course, not all feelings are true or accurate, and not all pain is indicative of a serious problem. But neither can be resolved unless we pay attention to what they are telling us.
When Simone Biles decided to honor the physical and emotional signals she was getting about her ability to function safely during the competition, she made a statement to the world. Joining the ranks of others, including Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka, she made it clear that her mental health counts more than an arbitrary medal count. This took tremendous courage in an increasingly complex, technological world in which public figures are being observed, analyzed, and criticized more than at any time in history. And while her struggles are occurring on a worldwide stage, she is hardly the only one struggling to cope psychologically. We often hear about suicide rates among college students and veterans, but Americans of all backgrounds take their lives each year. Americans are also reporting that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on their mental well-being.
While it is fashionable to argue that these individuals simply lack the fortitude of past generations, the case can be made that suffering in silence is easier on observers than those who suffer. If the cost of admitting that you are having trouble coping is self-medicating with substances, being viewed as a failure, or even being confined to a mental hospital it is no wonder that so many people just pushed on. I have been teaching a course on stress management for over 30 years. When I ask students to explore the history of their own families by talking to their oldest living relatives, they inevitably hear stories of unhappy marriages, estranged family members, broken hearts, abuse, and poor coping. The same is true if you study any era in history.
So perhaps we should see it as a win that so many more young people are willing to break the silence by talking about their own struggles, and the importance of prioritizing mental health. In my opinion, Simone Biles is not only the greatest female gymnast ever, but also a brave, caring young woman who, like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, has taken it upon herself to question the status quo and advocate for changes that will benefit all of us. That is truly gold-medal behavior.