By: Regina Taylor
We’re all used to Simone Biles capturing our attention with her phenomenal athleticism and consistent record breaking in gymnastics– but this year she made headlines for an entirely different reason — choosing mental health over the USA Olympic team. The most decorated gymnast of all time decided to withdraw from the finals of the Olympic games to prioritize her mental wellbeing. While her decision was heavily criticized, it serves as an important reminder that no individual is exempt from navigating the balance between prioritizing mental health and professional success. “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said regarding her decision. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Especially for young women and girls who look up to Simone Biles, her powerful words and courageous actions cleared a path in which making your mental health a priority is seen as a strength, not a weakness. Discussing the struggles of mental health is often stigmatized, especially for women. While women climb the steep stairs of success, men idly stand on an escalator that conveniently brings them to the forefront of the job market. The additional barriers women experience in the workforce can force women to internalize that much needed mental health conversation in exchange for being perceived as put-together and deserving of professional success. Additionally, women are predisposed to have a higher risk for anxiety, PTSD, and depression than men (Mental Health Disparities, 2017).
While biological risk factors like sex hormones and unique cognitive responses to stress contribute to these outcomes, mental health research often doesn’t take into account the socioeconomic and cultural factors that make women an especially vulnerable group when it comes to mental health (Reicher).
Educating ourselves on both genetic and social risk factors brings us a step closer to giving women the support they need to seek treatment. Social factors that place women at a higher risk for mental health problems include the gender wage gap, higher rates of poverty, and increased likelihood of being a victim of violence. In fact, one in three women have experienced intimate partner violence through physical or sexual abuse and stalking within their lifetime (Mental Health Disparities, 2017). Gender-based violence is one of the most notable psychosocial risk factors for women, and serves as one of many expressions of power inequities faced in our society that create disparities in health (Reicher, 2016).
Speaking out against depictions of stereotypes and negative connotations of both men and women in the media is another important step towards making mental health easier to talk about. Spending necessary time on prioritizing mental health does not equate to weakness, despite an incessant false illusion and unrealistic expectation that we must always “push through” and “be tough” without limits.
With her actions Simone proved that nothing, not even an Olympic gold medal, is worth sacrificing your mental health over. It is really meaningful for young girls to watch women like Simone making decisions that may sacrifice the perception of being intrinsically perfect, but, more importantly, recognize the value and reality of mental wellbeing and its relevance to all of us.
Mental Health Disparities: Women’s Mental Health . (2017). American Psychiatric Association
Moniuszko, S. M. (2021, August 4). ‘It’s just been REALLY hard’: Simone Biles’ most powerful statements about mental health. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/08/03/simone-biles-wins-bronze-her-most-powerful-mental-health-quotes/5452785001/. Reicher , A. (2016). Sex and gender differences in mental disorders. The Lancet Psychiatry. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(16)30348-0/fulltext?rss=yes.