Midlands mental health professionals, advocates applaud Biles’ openness with her struggles during Olympics

Simone Biles, of the United States, waits to perform on the vault during the artistic...
Simone Biles, of the United States, waits to perform on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo.(Gregory Bull | AP)
Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 7:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Simone Biles is slated to return to competition Tuesday in the final women’s gymnastics event of the Tokyo Olympics, the balance beam final.

Biles cited mental health obstacles in withdrawing from the women’s team competition, all-around final, and three other event finals. As she explained, Biles’ body and mind were not in sync, in a mental block called the “twisties” that could lead to serious injury.

“I say put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles told reporters after the team competition, in which the American squad earned a silver medal.

Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health on the world’s biggest stage is being lauded by those in the mental health space in South Carolina.

“I was really pleased to see her take that stance and say, ‘I need to take a step back and take care of me,’” said Louise Johnson, the director of children, adolescents, and their families at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

“People coming forward who have the clout of somebody like Simone Biles really helps to enable that pathway where people say, ‘Hey, this is OK. This is acceptable to prioritize myself and my health,’” added Dr. Mike McCall, a licensed psychologist and senior instructor at the University of South Carolina, who also works with Gamecock student-athletes.

That attention Biles is bringing to mental health could have an even great impact now than it did just a few years ago.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in the first half of 2019, about 11% of American adults said they were dealing with anxiety and/or depressive disorder.

But since the pandemic, that number had jumped to about 30%, as of this past May.

“Diseases of the brain are not dissimilar from diseases of the heart or of the liver or of the kidneys, that if something is going awry, you need to take care of it,” NAMI South Carolina Executive Director Bill Lindsey said.

Lindsey, McCall, and Johnson all said Biles and other athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from this year’s French Open because of mental health reasons, being transparent and open about their struggles is just as important in opening up this conversation, that mental health is as critical as physical health.

“The more people that are able to tell their stories, the better off we are because it becomes an understanding of what’s going on just because illness is relatable,” Lindsey said.

“This should encourage everyone to take that step back and really recognize, ‘What is important?’ And what is more important than your overall health and wellbeing?” Johnson added.

McCall said people might need to take a step back and get help, like Biles did, if they notice life becoming harder than it normally is.

“Where it’s not coming automatic. I’m finding myself being maybe more forgetful than usual. I think also other signs that people might pick up on, if they’re feeling more irritable than usual, feeling less engaged with the people around them than usual,” McCall said, adding that it is also a good idea for everyone to be proactive, including by learning coping skills, before that point.

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