Mental Health in the Media: What Parents and Providers Can Learn from Simone Biles

As a psychologist who works with children and teens to battle anxiety every day, I have been processing the brave words and actions of Olympic champion Simone Biles all week. At just 24 years old, Ms. Biles has been thrust into the spotlight of these 2021 Olympics as the epitome of athleticism, and now, as a mental health advocate and role model. For athletes, young people, and particularly for Black women everywhere, Ms. Biles has set an example of prioritizing her mental health and well-being above others’ expectations of her…but what does this mean for us mere mortals? 

Mental Health is Health 

Whenever we talk about “health” in the United States, it feels implied that we are discussing physical rather than mental health. For psychologists and other mental health providers, we quickly learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that our services, though unrelated to the virus itself, have everything to do with the wellness of the clients we serve. That said, when Simone Biles stepped away from competition for a mental health reason rather than physical injury, it was a reminder for the whole world to see that mental health *is* health. Particularly in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders, it is easy to see that one’s physical and mental health are impossible to untangle, for when we experience emotions like fear and stress our body physically responds. Parents and mental health providers must consider the mental and physical health of their children and clients in order to move towards the best overall outcomes. 

When to Take a Break 

The oft-quoted phrase “Mental Health Day” still doesn’t exist for most of us, particularly parents of kids and teens with anxiety or OCD. However, for those who tend to overachieve, overcommit, and overextend themselves, taking a break can mean the difference between an anxiety-fueled mess and a less-than-perfect success. These breaks can be big (like stepping away from an Olympic event or taking a week off work) or small (like taking an hour to go for a run or 5 minutes to snuggle a beloved pet). When we listen to our bodies and minds before they hit overload, we can, like Ms. Biles, avoid unnecessary overwhelm and injury. Ms. Biles has succeeded in reminding us that taking a break is not always a weakness, but is often a demonstration of immense strength and wisdom. 

How to Strike a Balance 

Because so much of anxiety and OCD treatment involves intentional exposure to anxiety-provoking stimuli, I often work with clients to strike a balance between relaxation and hard work, comfort and growth. Simone Biles has taught us that these two things are not mutually exclusive. In order to attain the level of success she has, Ms. Biles has needed to balance both intense training and recovery. This is true for our mental health as well. In order to meet life’s challenges, our resilience and acceptance of unpleasant emotions is important to practice so that we can reach for our greatest potential. It is also critical that we have moments

of rest so that we can handle the stressors that life will inevitably throw at us. This does not mean that we need to shrink our dreams, but it does mean that we need to live according to what we value most. For myself and the families I serve, I see the biggest change when we act in ways that honor our strengths, our goals, our loved ones, and our constant challenge to become better versions of ourselves. Sometimes this means pushing our own limits, and sometimes this means slowing down. 

I am so glad to have an incredible athlete like Simone Biles in the news for her bravery, and I hope that her lessons for our stressful lives are not lost in the shuffle. After all, the best gold medal is a life that is full of joy, gratitude, and growth. As parents and providers, we have an obligation to both teach and model the importance of our mental health, taking breaks, and striving for balance. 

© 2021 Erika J. Vivyan, PhD. All rights reserved.

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