It was an Olympics of firsts. The first to be postponed due to a global pandemic. The first to house no spectators for the same reason. The first Olympics in which one of the greatest athletes of all time cited mental health as the reason she was unable to compete.
Simone Biles – American gymnast and global superstar – withdrew from competition on the grounds of mental health challenges. In doing so, she brought immense public attention to her very human struggles. She reminded us that athletes are human, and that all humans face hardship sometimes. In short, she put mental health front and centre on the world stage.
This may come as no surprise given the unprecedented context surrounding this Olympics. As we are only too aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, bringing with it a host of impacts, reaching far and wide – with arguably none greater than those on mental health. Biles’ decision to remove herself from competition comes as a stark reminder that no one is immune from such effects.
The evolving narrative in sport around the importance of mental health should not be understated or dismissed. This is an industry that has historically portrayed persistence and perseverance above all else. We exalt our athletes for their tenacity, their courage. And we still do – but what constitutes that strength has changed. It is not weak to prioritise mental health. To take a step back, to give ourselves the time and attention we need to heal. In fact, it is the opposite.
Consider the pressure Biles faced to continue to compete. She carried the weight of expectation. The eyes of her country – and the world – were on her. It was her courage and determination that allowed her to do what she needed to do in that moment – which was to protect her mental health.
The Tokyo Olympics has shone a much-needed light on the importance of mental health. We are all human. We all struggle sometimes. We are all entitled to step back when we need to, and to ask for help when we need it. This takes courage, and we are stronger for doing it.
This lesson comes at a critical time for our community. The pandemic has hit us hard – both physically and mentally. Over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, Lifeline has responded to a record number of calls. This tells us that people are finding things difficult, but that they are also seeking help. If you’re struggling, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to a friend or family member. Seek professional assistance. Call Lifeline or Beyond Blue for 24/7 phone support.
We are all human. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to ask for help.
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