History has been made in the current Olympics, but not just in terms of the usual breaking of records and awarding of medals. Gymnast Simone Biles has made history by the bravery she has shown to be transparent about her mental health and placing it over the demand that she should somehow push through overwhelming anxieties to perform. Thankfully almost all of the world is congratulating her for revealing her struggles. Michael Phelps has also been a role model in recent years, in talking about his own issues around depression. These amazing athletes who are role models for us all, especially the younger generations, are inviting them to appreciate how important preserving and protecting one’s mental health is.
When I think of what Simone Biles experienced in the previous Olympics, that had to be traumatizing for her. She experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her trainer and kept it all secret. These are the ingredients for creating serious posttraumatic stress issues. Some of her teammates were also being abused by him. I doubt there was any way to prepare her emotionally or mentally to be thrown back into that same environment where that abuse occurred to her a few years before.
We know that trauma involves very strong sensory memories: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and our tactile feelings. Perhaps many if not all of those senses will be revisited while she is there in Tokyo. As much as she might have prepared herself mentally for going back into the Olympic environment, there is no way to prepare the mind and the brain when it is re-immersed in the same environment associated with all that trauma several years earlier. I like to think that maybe she faced some of those horrific memories and the very environment where they first occurred, realizing she was in a new place in life and that her previous trauma no longer needed to haunt her. This might have been a very important step in her healing.
By her and others putting a spotlight on the importance of mental health, we are experiencing a kind of public revelation that we all should put a similar value on the importance of protecting and nurturing mental health. I think about all who struggle with their own mental health issues who are being validated by what is happening in Tokyo.
We know that attitudes and beliefs can be greatly influenced by what happens in the media. By the overwhelming support being proffered toward Simone, all of us are contributing to a raised awareness of the importance of mental health and how we need to be supportive of each person who is struggling. We do not know the inner worlds of the people around us and this is a perfect example of looking at someone who seems to be outwardly very healthy – both physically and mentally – while showing courage and revealing the truth about her inner world.
As we close the books on these Olympics, how wonderful to realize that some of the shroud of shame for people who struggle with mental health issues has been lifted, giving them permission to care for that mental health and find healing.
Invitation for Reflection
- What have been your reactions to Simone Biles revelation about her mental health issues? To what extent did you feel a level of compassion and also respect for her willingness to be transparent?
- How can you use what Simone Biles has done, along with others like Michael Phelps, to help the children in your life gain respect for the importance of mental health: theirs and that of others?
- How can you use these headlines as an educational tool for your children and those in your world?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute