When gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team gymnastics final at the Olympics, she brought athletes' mental health to the forefront of this intense competition.
Biles spoke openly about her drive for success and dominance and, at the same time, showed vulnerability when acknowledging the pressures and expectations she has experienced. She is not alone in facing these challenges, but she is definitely one of the most visible athletes at the Tokyo Olympics to admit to them.
Biles has been an advocate of mental health, previously discussing her own struggle with anxiety and panic attacks prior to the Olympic games. As a psychologist who works with emerging adults at The Menninger Clinic, I assure you that such pressures are not exclusive to elite athletes.
The pressures that emerging adults face today are quite different than in the past. Being “the best” is the norm in our society today, whether it’s taking advanced placement (AP) classes in high school, getting into an Ivy League school, presenting a carefully edited version of your best self on Instagram — the list of pressures often seems endless.
Anxiety and depression are a common result of these pressures in our current society. In fact, anxiety has increased considerably during Covid, especially among younger adults. The lack of socialization and added difficulty forming romantic relationships have further complicated things for emerging adults who are still formalizing their identities. Medications are one way to address anxiety, but there are other evidence-based approaches to address symptoms when they impact quality of life.
How can we get to a point where “perfection” or “success” don’t define us? Part of the solution is to recognize that you are not alone. Anxiety and depression are not uncommon during Covid, even for people who have never had a history of mental health issues. For some, the anxiety and depression can be debilitating to the point where it is impacting school, work and relationships. This can intensify leading some to develop suicidal beliefs or plans.
What Biles has done is inspiring. She spoke openly about her struggles, probably knowing she would disappoint some individuals with her decision to withdraw. However, she was able to recognize her needs and the long-term impact of self-care. She has been open about her anxiety and her work with mental health clinicians. This kind of vulnerability on a public level helps others recognize their own struggles and decreases the stigma around seeking help.