When Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition on Tuesday, the USA Gymnastics team cited medical issues before Biles provided more details: Physically, she was good but emotionally, she felt unbalanced — and she knew it would affect her game.
Biles’ admission ignited an online discourse around mental health that’s been ongoing for some time. Except this time, the conversation feels different.
Before my job at Sleep.com, I was a mental health editor at prominent health sites, and in my experience of monitoring and reporting on reactions, how the nation is responding to Biles’ decision shows unique progress.
From headlines to tweets, majority of reaction from media outlets, the USA Gymnastics team, and communities online after Biles withdrew twice — once from the team competition and again from the individual — is of support.
Contrast this with how the French Open officials reacted to Naomi Osaka after she cited mental health reasons for not attending a press conference — it shows we’ve learned a lot, though still have a way to go.
The impact of mental health on our emotional and physical selves
Those who trivialize mental health often believe restoration from mental health happens in a snap.
When opening up about mental health, people are often told “mind over matter” or are asked, “Have you tried yoga?” What should be innocuous phrases reveals the large gulf between experience and observation.
Jor-El Caraballo, licensed therapist and founder of Viva Wellness, says that mainstream understanding of health often undermines the link between mental health and physical health. “When we're stressed, anxious, depressed, worn out, and more, we do not perform at our best,” he says. “Problem solving even becomes more difficult. Subjective experiences of pain become worse when we're stressed out.”
We’ve all experienced racing thoughts at one point in time.
Mental illness can compound that single occurrence into a chronic situation, leading to weeks of sleep debt requiring months to recover — and that’s only after we recognize what’s going on in time to address it. Without that recognition and proactive action to restore, this compounding effect of sleep deprivation can exacerbate physical and mental symptoms, from heart disease to panic attacks.
Critics of Biles’ decision have focused on reputation over health, implying she should “positive vibes” her way back into the competition after stumbling on the vault and experiencing the twisties — a term for when gymnasts lose their spatial awareness during a complex move.
Like the “yips” in other sports, twisties is a frightening and sudden mental block that can cost someone their medal — or their physical body. Which is why Biles’ second withdrawal is a powerful message about the toll mental health can take.
The mind may need just as much time to recover as the body, and Biles extending her need for rest is a powerful message for the public. Her expressing her immediate need to pull out of the competition is a healthy response — and, also, a rare one.
My closest comparison to the “twisties” is dissociation. It’s easy to numb the voices in my head but, eventually, fatigue overpowers the mind. In those “push through” moments, I’ve experienced decreased eyesight, spontaneous panic attacks while crossing the road, and a terrifying inability to recall memories.
This happened after the spa shooting in Atlanta on March 16. Even though my friends told me not to check the news, I did and immediately blocked out my feelings to avoid overwhelming fear and anxiety.
The next morning, I logged on, surprised to see an email of support from my team about taking the day off. I declined the offer, believing I felt OK, but as the saying goes: Feelings are meant to be felt.
One day of not feeling took an enormous toll on my body. It was difficult to sleep without wondering whether I would be safe. Even though I took the next day off, the anxiety lasted for weeks.
But as an editor, my worst mistake is often a typo. For Biles’, it could be a life-alternating injury. It’s why I have so much empathy and respect for Biles, who not only is one of the few people who can rightfully say she feels the weight of the world but has also been through heavily stigmatized racial and sexual trauma.
Biles’ admission reveals that mental health needs more validation
My brain eventually came “back online,” thanks to the support of friends and coworkers. Being able to be open about my emotional wellbeing took tremendous pressure away from pretending or performing normalcy.
Pretense is a heavy burden to carry throughout the day.
For the average person, it might be like smiling when you don’t want to and carrying the heavy consciousness that you’re faking it for the comfort of others.
For Olympians, pretense could be a career-ending injury — a perspective many now take on Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic moment, as well as Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, whose premature return to training after injury led to a horrific fall that broke her neck.
In many ways, Biles reclaimed mind over matter when she labeled mental health as her reason for withdrawing. She chose to listen to her mind and backed out before her body experienced permanent physical harm.
She could have left people to speculate physical health, the original reason the USA Gymnasts team gave to the public, but instead chose to open up. Her admission gave mental health more credibility in the long-standing public debate of physical vs. mental strength.
“Ironically, I often use the example of considering the much-needed physical break that athletes require,” says Caraballo of productivity and rest. “We are wise to apply a similar philosophy to our mental health as well, and actually ask ourselves, ‘How much demand is on my system right now? How much am I mentally/psychologically exerting myself?’ then we tend to get a better idea of the rest we need to get back into the game when it really matters.”
Biles’ openness also influenced a more positive response from mainstream media outlets, the USA Gymnastics team, and commentators on social media — and that had a powerful effect for people like me, who live with mental and invisible illnesses.
The outpour of support and understanding makes us feel validated in our invisible pain. Many times, that outside validation is what we need to give ourselves permission to rest, to say no to social obligations, to prioritize sleep instead of replying to an email, catching up on news, or reject revenge bedtime procrastination.
Giving others the OK to rest, too
Before COVID-19, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness. That number has subsequently grown higher, impacting primarily people in underprivileged communities. It signifies a need for the prioritization of mental health, and I hope that the support around Biles’ public decision also trickles down to support in our day-to-day relationships at work and at home.
It’s high time we acknowledge, value, and prioritize rest. The reality is that rest is just as essential as hustle — perhaps more so. In fact, when it comes to long-term health and wellness as individuals and in our society — specifically people of color and queer communities, and those on the frontlines, who experienced significant sleep disparities during COVID — rest is deserved.
“I don't think it can be overstated how important Biles' choice to take a step back for her mental health is for the Black community, and for Black women especially,” says Caraballo.
“Black women are often non-consensually forced into this position of being exceptional human beings at all times. What this does is create an immense amount of pressure to continually perform at their best for their partners, homes and communities. I can only hope Biles’ public declaration gives many more Black women the freedom to more accurately assess when they also need and give them space to step back for their personal benefit.”
And this idea of external permission tracks. Looking back, Biles’ says she felt the freedom to withdraw after Osaka did the same for her mental health. So let’s keep fighting against mental health stigma, with Biles’ words as a guide to not only take care of our mental health but also help others feel the permission and empowerment to take care of their own, too.
"We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do." — Simone Biles