By Ken Reed

I feel terrible for Simone Biles. But in looking at this development in the big picture, I am also excited because the world-wide focus on her mental health, after she withdrew from the team and all-around gymnastics competitions, will significantly advance mental health awareness in both SportsWorld and society at large.

I can’t imagine any athlete — ever — having to face as much pressure as Biles did entering these Olympics. She was widely promoted as the GOAT (greatest of all-time) and NBC and other media outlets made her the focus of their Olympics coverage. She was expected to simply show up and win a handful of gold medals competing against the best gymnasts in the world.

“It’s just so much pressure, and I’ve been watching how much pressure has been on [Biles] in the months leading up to the Games, and it’s just devastating,” said Aly Raisman, the gold-medal winning former American teammate of Biles this week.

On top of that, Biles has had to deal with the mental scar tissue from being one of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse victims during her childhood and teen years. In addition, she watched as her sports organization, USA Gymnastics, failed to protect her and her fellow gymnasts from the predator that was Nassar.

“I’m still struggling with some things,” Biles said after withdrawing. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

We don’t know all the factors involved in Biles’ mental health struggles but she’s clearly hurt right now. Hurt as badly as if she had suffered a broken ankle in the preliminaries.

Yet, some people, most of them probably lacking the strength and courage Biles possesses in one of her pinkies, have hopped on social media and called Biles “weak.”

Personally, I greatly admire Biles’ strength. She’s won numerous big gymnastics titles while being a sexual molestation victim and fighting off suicidal thoughts. She once won the world championship while passing a kidney stone. And now, she has the courage to tell the whole world that she’s suffering mentally and simply can’t compete safely. She could’ve made up some phony injury that might have been more accepted by her critics. Instead, she told the truth. She said she’s physically fine but mentally broken.

And the fact she told the truth about her mental health problem on the biggest stage in the world, will help millions — athletes and non-athletes alike — have the courage to reach out to someone and say “I’m not okay right now. I might need some time and help to get well.”

“Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It’s a public health issue and now we’re seeing it more and more in our student-athletes,” said Timothy Neal, an athletic trainer and college professor currently at Concordia University, Ann Arbor.

Approximately 46 million people are living with mental illness in the United States today. On college campuses, 33% of all college students suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions to varying degrees. Among youth in the United States, 9.7% have severe depression (up from 9.2% in last year’s study). The percentage of adults in the U.S. experiencing serious thoughts of suicide increased by 460,000 from last year.

One area, in particular, that needs more attention when it comes to mental health is sports. Among professional athletes, up to 35% suffer from a mental health issue, which may manifest as depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or burnout. Rarely due they seek help. Of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% seek help (vs. 30% of college students as a whole who seek help).

“[Athletes] are very good at all of the muscular things, the physical stuff, [but] the mental health aspect, I feel, is not very highlighted or taken care of,” said Laura Sudano, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University.

Everyone involved with athletes, at whatever level, should do what he or she can to help us as a society catch up on this issue. Coaches, trainers, administrators, etc., need to move along the change continuum from awareness of the issue, to understanding, to acceptance, to attitude change, to behavior change. Every sports program, from our little leagues to the big leagues, should have a comprehensive mental health game plan in place.

Today, we’re closer to that vision becoming a reality thanks to the courage and strength of Simone Biles.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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