Simone Biles: Re-modeling Mental Health and Female Self-Esteem

Listening to Simone Biles at Tuesday’s press conference, I was impressed by how comfortable she appeared with her decision. Let’s be clear: Simone is not the problem. We are.

In our media-driven culture, where appearance is confused with substance and simple solutions are thrown at complex problems, Simone taught the country a lesson: mental health matters. Though she didn’t owe us one, Simone provided a sound explanation for her decision, knowing some wouldn’t understand. It was obvious she had learned a skill I teach every day: how to self-validate. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the reasons she excels at her sport.

Some of the headlines regarding Simone’s decision referred specifically to athletes. But this is about more than performance. As a former Army Social Work Officer and practicing therapist, I’ve seen first-hand the damage we inflict on each other due to ignorance and fear of mental health. Americans don’t know what they don’t know. They use labels, like bipolar disorder and PTSD, with little understanding of diagnostic criteria. They regard counseling as a sign of weakness or for “crazy people” rather than the complex and transformational process that it is. It’s not their fault. Society has failed to educate them.

Meanwhile, media outlets rarely discuss mental health and, when they do, it is limited to clinical conditions such as Major Depression, Panic Disorder or Anorexia. They don’t consult mental health experts like they do experts in other fields such as law, national security, politics, and medicine. And they don’t associate mental health with situational issues like parenting, communication, self-esteem, worry, and employment. In other words, the challenges Americans face every day. This is the bulk of my work.

Why does our society compartmentalize mental health? We don’t do this with physical health. We don’t equate the word “medical” with “disorder.” We don’t discourage or shame people for seeking medical care. We don’t tell people they should be able to treat physical illnesses without medical intervention. We don’t assume we know as much as medical specialists. Mental health is as vital to our existence as physical health, but cultural norms have prejudiced us to place greater value on one over the other.

But there’s another reason Simone Biles’ decision is relevant: the example it sets for girls. There’s an exercise I do with my female adolescent patients, called the “Inner Eye Exercise.”1 I ask them to write down comments from their “Inner Critic.” The responses are heart-wrenching: “You’re stupid, ugly, lazy, boring, annoying, untalented, worthless…”

Is it any wonder that the Centers for Disease Control reports, a “51% increase in suicide attempts among teenage girls” last year, (not including suicide attempts that go unreported)? While there are numerous reasons teenage girls experience depression, the common denominator is inadequate coping skills – remaining silent being the deadliest of these. Public schools could be teaching these skills: how to manage anger, anxiety, and depression, resisting peer pressure, conflict resolution, problem solving, decision making, constructive communication, and self-esteem building.

Simone Biles is an athlete and celebrity, but the media’s portrayal of this as justification for her decision is exactly the problem. Why must there be an external justification for emotional discomfort? And why must external factors be severe in nature to warrant caring for one’s mental health? What constitutes stress? It means different things to different people. What about biopsychosocial history? For example, Simone Biles is a survivor of sexual abuse. If not dealt with, trauma can debilitate a person for the rest of his or her life.

Charlie Kirk and Piers Morgan called Simone Biles’ decision “selfish.” Kirk also observed that the country is “raising a generation of weak people.” Morgan and Matt Walsh mocked the idea of mental health as a reason for withdrawing from competition. (Ironically, Walsh uses Michael Phelps as an example, a celebrity athlete who has been very outspoken about his own struggles with depression.) Yet they have no expertise in mental health or child development. (If they’re genuinely concerned, they’re welcome to have me on their shows.)

Far from selfish, most girls (and women) are excessive people pleasers to their own detriment. They second guess themselves, mind read, self-bully, compare themselves to others, and put others’ needs before their own to avoid rejection and failure.

We should be empowering girls to make their own decisions, trust their instincts, and assert themselves. In other words, be as kind to themselves as they are to others. Women should be regarded as capable of making good decisions – whether or not others agree or understand (or, as I like to put it, give them “permission”).

Given what I know about women, I am confident Simone’s teammates told her the same thing.

PLEASE NOTE: for the purposes of this article, I elected to focus on the events of this week. However, I wish to acknowledge and commend Naomi Osaka for asserting her needs under overwhelming social pressure and for raising awareness of mental health.

1 Sinclair, T.M. (1998). The Personality Pie. In Kuduson, H., Schaefer, C. (Eds.). 101 Favorite Play Therapy Techniques (pp. 72-76). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

2 CDC Reports 51% Increase in Suicide Attempts Among Teenage Girls – Foundation for Economic Education (fee.org)

3 Drug Overdoses Killed A Record Number Of Americans In 2020, Jumping By Nearly 30% | KPBS

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Leigh says:

    Well said!

    Like

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