US Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the women’s team final to look after her mental health could go a long way toward dispelling stigmas around the issue in the sport, experts said.
“There has always been, in the world of sports, an emphasis on looking fit and looking mentally healthy,” Katie Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Center on Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, told CBC Sports on Tuesday. This can perpetuate a kind of silent suffering and self-isolation.
“So the more we can have a very supportive and empathetic conversation, as with physical health issues, the more we are able to normalize the conversation.”
Biles, a gymnastics icon with four Olympic gold medals and 19 world titles to her name, withdrew from Tuesday’s final after the vaulting event.
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“I have to focus on my mental health,” the 24-year-old said after the event. “I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now.
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“We have to protect our minds and bodies, instead of just going out and doing what the world wants us to do.”
Taslim Alani Farji, clinical psychologist and director and founder of the Silm Center for Mental Health in Toronto, praised Biles for prioritizing her well-being.
“I think it’s incredible that she was able to have the courage and the foresight to say she couldn’t do it, or that it was not in her best interest to do it, and that she was allowed to come in the first place from this,” Ani Fergie told CBC Sports.
The team representing the Russian Olympic Committee won the gold, while the Biles teammates in the United States took the silver. Great Britain won the bronze medal.
Stigma can affect the lives of athletes
Biles posted on social media on Monday that she felt like she could carry the weight of the world on her shoulders at times.
Kamkar, who is also an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of psychiatry, said the amount of stress athletes face, as well as the day-to-day problems people face, is often underappreciated by audiences.
She noted that the stigma around mental health in the world of sports has diminished over the years due to a strong focus on education and dialogue, but there is still room for improvement.
Kamkar, who was a medical practitioner for the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, said she worked closely with service members and veterans.
Watch | Simone Biles discusses the decision to put her mental health first:
Alani Fergie added that this stigma could have a tangible impact on athletes. “When someone shares their mental health struggles, stigma can affect how they are recruited, how they are trained, and the opportunities they are allowed to participate in,” she said.
“It will affect the way the public perceives them, it will affect care – unfortunately, because mental health and mental illness are still seen as weaknesses and weaknesses and lack of will, for an athlete this can make or break a career.”
Participation in other events is determined
Biles is set to defend her Olympic title in the all-around final on Thursday. She has also qualified for all four event finals later in the games, but it is not yet clear if she will participate.
She told reporters she would take it day by day before deciding what to do.
Alani Fergie said Biles’ decision to look after her own interests first may allow other athletes to express their own need to step back from the competition if it is what is best for them.
“I think this sets an incredible precedent for how athletes think about themselves and perform, as well as how we should approach athletes and humanize their experience,” she said.
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