Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and the Stigma Around Mental Health

On Tuesday, Simone Biles made the life-changing decision to prioritize her mental wellbeing over the Olympic finals. Just months before, Naomi Osaka made a similar decision and withdrew from the 2021 French Open. And recently, Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified from competing in the Olympics after testing positive for marijuana due to the trauma of losing her mother.

The common denominator? All women of colour, penalized for their mental health.

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Naomi Osaka (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Their decisions were, predictably, met with backlash. The lack of white privilege that protects their white counterparts is a defining factor in how they were treated: one small slip-up is met with intense retaliation. Piers Morgan even went so far as to call Biles a “joke” and “nonsense” for using mental health as an “excuse.” Others criticized Biles’ withdrawal for being the reason Russia won gold in gymnastics. Some chose to look only at Richardson’s actions and not at the reasoning behind them. And others let stereotypes from their cultural backgrounds cloud their judgement.

It is no secret that mental health is heavily stigmatized, but especially in the South Asian community. Many South Asians are told it’s “just in their head,” to keep going, that our elders experienced far worse than us — an incredibly damaging cycle. And although people like Sid Mallya and Deepika Padukone are raising awareness surrounding mental health while the pandemic is also bringing these conversations to the forefront, there is still far to go. Our culture is one that silences mental health conversations, especially for women, and looks down upon seeking professional help.

But what Biles and Osaka taught us is that it is okay, and in fact admirable, to prioritize your mental health. Sports writer Kavitha A. Davidson summed up the situation in a trending tweet: “Simone Biles won nationals w/broken toes in both feet, worlds w/a kidney stone, and has carried the burden of being a face of sexual assault survivors as a national institution failed to support them.” In other words, her strength is unmatched.

And, having the weight of the world on her shoulders, instead of pushing through and risking an injury, Biles showed us that true strength lies in the ability to take a step back.

“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and felt like I was still doing it for other people. That just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people,” Biles told reporters. “I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to take a step back.”

Biles also received resounding support from many people. Priyanka Chopra Jonas took to Instagram to praise Biles as a “role model, champion.”

“I cannot fathom the impossible pressure you all perform under, but knowing where you need to draw the line and step away — TO CHOOSE YOURSELF — is most important,” Jonas wrote. “Thank you for helping normalize that even under tremendous pressure, it’s ok to be human.”

Biles’ fellow teammates and other gymnasts also took to social media to commend her decision. Former gymnast Jacoby Miles, who broke her neck and became paralyzed after a gymnastics accident, praised Biles’ ability to not let her “twisties” get the best of her. “Twisties” is a mental block that causes a gymnast to become disoriented mid-air, which could lead to devastating injuries like Miles’ paralysis. Instead, Biles’ decision to not push herself saved her from the possibility of such an outcome.

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Simone Biles (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Not only did Biles and Osaka make life-changing decisions for themselves, but they also paved the way for other women of colour to do the same. They redefined “toughness”: not gritting your teeth and doing it anyway, but recognizing your boundaries and allowing yourself space and time to breathe.

And that is a lesson that many in the South Asian community have yet to learn. Because until mental health is accepted, prioritized and given the same weight as physical health, people in our community will continue to silently struggle. The Olympic committee also needs to prioritize athletes’ mental health, provide them with resources and understand that physical health is not equivalent to mental health. 

So thank you, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, for showing us that there is more strength in speaking up than in pushing through.