What I learned from Simone Biles about my own self-worth

Simone Biles is a hero for sitting out of the competition in order to prioritise her mental health (Photo: Getty)Simone Biles is a hero for sitting out of the competition in order to prioritise her mental health (Photo: Getty)
Simone Biles is a hero for sitting out of the competition in order to prioritise her mental health (Photo: Getty) | AFP via Getty Images

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This week, I was inspired to look after myself by a woman half my age who was several thousand miles away in Japan. Her withdrawal from Olympic events was so logical, so strong and a true masterclass in self-care.

The world watched as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Simone Biles, misjudged her landing on the vault, completing only a one-and-a-half twist instead of a two-and-a-half twist in the ‘Amanar’, and hurriedly left the floor along with her medical trainer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

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But it was her actions after this point that have cemented her reputation as not only one of the best sportspeople in the world, but also a shining beacon of light for anyone who has ever, or is today, suffering with poor mental health.

I grew up in the USA but, for the last 20 years, I’ve called London my home. America has a melting-pot of immigrant history celebrated for what makes it unique as a nation. As a young woman growing up in New York, I was taught to be courageous, work hard, rise to competition, and told by teachers that I could “achieve anything my heart desired”.

So, it’s fair to say that, as Americans, we are taught to present with confidence from a young age – it is called show and tell. We compete for the finite educational and career opportunities that over 250 million people rally to achieve. Those of us from working class families are hungry for opportunity and want to honour our parents who struggled to raise us and feed us.

The one thing I was never taught in school, however, was how to manage my own mental health issues. When depression descended upon me as a child in the 1970s, no one knew what it was nor dared to acknowledge it. I was called “different”, “eccentric”, “moody”, “emotional” and “difficult”.

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As a Generation X young woman, I watched so many of my loved ones lose the battle with mental health. I am from a generation of women who were utterly ill-equipped to manage mental health or wellbeing properly. However, I’m encouraged by the way that things are changing for a younger generation of women – with a significant proportion of the UK school curriculum now focusing on mental health – and think that Simone’s actions were an important reflection of this.

Today, I hold the role of Chief Executive at the UK’s largest advocacy organisation – POhWER. Last year, we worked with over 400,000 people who needed our support to uphold their rights in public institutions. Forty-three per cent of our beneficiaries live with mental health issues and six per cent of those are young people. We see people everyday who are in crisis and not accessing the support they need.

According to MHFA England, an estimated 792 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide and at any given time, one in six working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health.

Across the world, the Olympics is held up as the ultimate goal of elite sportsmanship. There is an expectation and public pressure that Olympians like Simone Biles are expected to be stoic, always smiling and an enthusiastic role model for all women. We hero-worship champions like her and expect them to be perfect human beings.

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The newspapers recently spoke of her becoming the most decorated Olympian in history. How much pressure must she have been feeling with the weight of the world’s expectations on her shoulders?

Too many people believe that to ‘battle through’ or ‘get on with it’ is the strongest route to take. I wholeheartedly reject that. To take yourself out of the running because you know yourself better than that – now that is strength. We must change the rhetoric that only physical injury or sickness is recognisable as an excuse.

Simone Biles is a hero for sitting out of the competition in order to prioritise her mental health. Her comment at the press conference after withdrawing - “We should be out here having fun, but that was not the case” - was refreshing and human.

When she spoke about prioritising her self-care over winning medals, I thought she showed great vulnerability. In her own words: “I knew it would be better to work on my mindfulness, I didn’t want to do anything silly and I knew that those girls needed to go out to competition.”

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When Simone took care of herself this week, it affirmed her own self-worth. But the action of doing this in the public eye will also have a ripple effect on others, including myself – spreading the message that admitting you are in a bad place is a strength not a weakness.

After all, we wouldn’t expect any athlete to perform with a broken leg, so why ask her to compete with a broken mind?

Helen Moulinos (she/her) is the Chief Executive of POhWER. POhWER was established in 1996 by a group of people with disabilities who were fighting social injustice and challenges in their lives. POhWER still operates with these roots at the heart of everything it does; supporting marginalised, vulnerable and socially excluded people through its charitable work.

Learn more about POhWER. Follow Helen on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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