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“We’re human:” What we can all learn from Olympic athletes focusing on mental health

We all have mental health, and these courageous athletes are reminding us to continually assess, prioritize, and take care of ourselves.

Simone Biles.jpg

In a typical year, the biggest news from the Olympic Games is based on medal counts and breaking records. As with most things in 2021, this year is anything but typical. The glaring headlines from Tokyo revolve around an athlete who chose not to compete, but instead, focus on her mental well-being.

Simone Biles is known as the greatest gymnast of all time and was the favorite to win gold for Team USA in multiple events. Instead, the 24-year-old withdrew from the team and individual competitions. The news shocked the entire world and stunned Biles’ teammates.

Biles told reporters she recognized she wasn’t in the right state of mind and realized that could cause an injury or cost her teammates’ chances to win medals.

“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 so it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are rather than just battle through it,” Biles said.

Simone Biles is not the first high-profile athlete – or Olympian – to open up about their mental health.

Just last month, 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, after being fined when she said she would skip press interviews during the tournament because of her anxiety.

Michael Phelps – the most decorated Olympian of all time – is working as a commentator with NBC during the games. He opened up about his personal struggles with depression last year. After Biles’ announcement, Phelps said he understands the pressure she is under.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to really learn more about mental health, to all help each other out," Phelps said. “For me, I want people to be able to have somebody that can support them, who’s non-judgmental and who’s willing to hold space. There’s a lot that we can do to help one another and we have to start. We can’t brush it under the rug anymore.”

Sharing stories of struggle
When athletes, celebrities or people with platforms explain their experiences with mental health, substance use, grief, physical injury and other hardships, it gives hope to others and makes us feel less alone. Mental health experts and advocates everywhere are applauding Biles’ bravery, including Dr. Sara Wilson, a psychologist for Burrell Behavioral Health.

“The more we talk about mental health and practice wellness, the more we normalize the fact that we are all human, we all struggle, it is okay to acknowledge the difficulty and it is commendable to take a step back when needed,” Dr. Wilson said.

We can all take a cue from Biles and other athletes who have spoken out about mental health, no matter our circumstances or audience. Our own stories can be just as powerful in our own spaces – at home, with friends, at church, around family. By allowing ourselves to open up, we may help someone else realize they’re not the only person having a hard time and there is help out there. We all have mental health, and these courageous athletes are reminding us to continually assess, prioritize, and take care of ourselves.

Give yourself some grace
It’s easy to compare our own circumstances and pain to that of others. If we find ourselves thinking, “I don’t have as much on my plate as Simone Biles does,” or any other messages that minimize, invalidate, or take away the legitimacy of our feelings, treat that as a red flag or signal to take a step back.

“We must be gentle and compassionate toward ourselves, and remind ourselves that what we are facing is valid,” Dr. Wilson said.

When we judge our experience of stress, it adds another layer to the suffering. We can extend grace to ourselves, get more in touch with how we are feeling and what we need, and then do our best to allow ourselves to “sit out” when necessary. We deserve to focus on praising and celebrating our self-care rather than experiencing guilt or judgment.

Recognize the reeling
Self-assessment is the foundation of self-care. We have to be able to recognize what we are feeling and how we are doing in order to know what we need. We can do a self-check-in at any time, but it may be particularly important during times of distress. We all react to stress differently, so learning our own signs of struggle is helpful. We can ask ourselves, “How do I know when I’m reaching my limit?” These might be physical signs in our bodies, noticing unhelpful thoughts, or we may take notice of our behaviors and functioning.

Just as we check in with ourselves, checking in with others is important. That might include asking, “How are you?” or checking in about what we see from our lens. We may notice that someone we know is going through a challenging season and ask the following:

  • You’re facing a lot. How are you, and what can I do?
  • I noticed you seem more withdrawn (worried, overwhelmed, etc.) and wondered if you are okay. Is there anything I can do to support you?

Dr. Wilson said we can find small moments of peace and safety for ourselves and others even in the midst of extreme distress. There are ways to practice: Take a deep breath, change your environment, connect with someone supportive, practice mindfulness, recall a pleasant experience, etc.

“Leading with kindness and compassion for ourselves and others paves the way for support, comfort and healing,” Dr. Wilson said.

Create connections through self-care
Finding a person or a group who is willing to listen to us and hold space for our struggles – without judgement or shame – can be transformative for our mental well-being. That’s why Burrell Behavioral Health began and continues a virtual community that meets regularly for mindfulness practices, self-assessment and inspiring conversations.

The Be Well Community is aimed at achieving and maintaining wellness, as well as preventing mental health crises such as major depressive episodes, by creating a support system made of brain science experts, community members, Burrell employees and viewers on Facebook across the nation. Conversations among those groups allow them to virtually communicate about their mental well-being and how to improve it. The Be Well Community provides real-time connections and wellness practices, allowing those engaged to experience positive effects in the moment.

If we can learn anything from Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, it’s that we’re not alone. Whether we’re Olympic athletes or not, we all have challenges. We all walk through hard times. We can all stand up for what we need to survive the moment we’re in.

"We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we're human, too," Biles said to the Associated Press. "We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Burrell Behavioral Health is here to help. If you are in crisis, please call Burrell’s free 24/7 crisis assist team to connect with help immediately:

Connect with the Be Well Community on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Find out more at:

About the Be Well Initiatives
The Be Well Initiatives were established in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic for Burrell Behavioral Health employees to connect and experience community while working from home and navigating the uncertainty of the coronavirus. That effort was expanded to Facebook Live to allow access for all people. Through intentional self-care and connection, the Be Well Community brings brain science to life to help everyone experience hope and healing.

About Burrell Behavioral Health
Burrell Behavioral Health is the second largest behavioral health center in Missouri, working with more than 40,000 clients across 18 counties in Missouri. Burrell has more than 400 licensed providers offering a full continuum of care through our integrated network. Services include individual therapy and counseling, addiction recovery, psychiatric and medication management, educational and therapeutic groups, crisis intervention, medication-assisted treatment, adult stabilization, case management, residential treatment, autism, diagnostic testing and evaluations and developmental disability support. Learn more about Burrell’s programs and services at www.burrellcenter.com.


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