OPINION: Young, gifted and seeking mental wellness

For black women, putting emotional well-being first shouldn’t be an Olympic feat

On Tuesday, gymnast Simone Biles won the bronze medal after a balance beam routine that proved consistent and strong. It would normally have been an expected outcome for the 24-year-old gymnast whose prowess has left sports officials befuddled about how to score her death-defying moves. But her seventh Olympic medal — a tie for the most ever won by a U.S. gymnast — happened just one week after Biles cited mental stress as the reason for her withdrawal from the individual all-around competition as well as the team event.

“I was just happy to be able to perform regardless of the outcome,” Biles told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I did it for me and I was happy to be able to compete one more time … Training for five years and coming here and kind of being triggered and not being able to do anything wasn’t fun.”

Already, her return and solid performance is being hailed as a victory and in many ways it is. But just as Biles’ statement reveals that she isn’t diminishing the pain of her journey, neither should we. Biles is one of several athletes in recent weeks, most of whom happen to be Black women, who have felt the need to escape intense pressure and in the process have endured both solid support and harsh criticism for their choices.

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Most women, regardless of race, can relate to this experience, because for so many of us, it is the price paid for daring to put ourselves ahead of anyone or anything else. That Biles — one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time — could not escape critics who labeled her anti-American, weak or worse for choosing herself over an institution that has already demonstrated its lack of humanity and grudging respect for her talent, is a signal that it is time for a cultural change.

Biles isn’t the only athlete to have a struggle to find mental wellness breathlessly documented in the media. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who spiraled after a second DUI arrest; Mardy Fish, whose anxiety attacks on the tennis court sidelined his career; and Jerry West, an NBA player who suffered lifelong depression, have all become advocates of mental health by taking charge of their own narratives.

They have also escaped the same level of vitriol recently directed toward Biles; tennis player Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open in June citing bouts of depression and anxiety; and sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who lost the opportunity to compete in the Tokyo Games after using marijuana to cope with the death of her biological mother.

“World-class athletes put in the spotlight at a time of global crisis and extraordinary scrutiny has meant that their self-care is also put in the spotlight,” said Stephanie Evans, a professor of Black women’s studies at Georgia State University whose new book “Black Women’s Yoga History” (SUNY, $28) explores self-care narratives to relieve the stress of Black women dealing with the condition in isolation.

“This is not a problem only Black women athletes are facing; they are just put in the center of the discussion because Black women are not expected to have the right to say, ‘enough,’” Evans said. “It is time to change how Black women of any occupation are forced to deal with unreasonable, unfair and discriminatory expectations.”

Monique Hennagan, 45, of Stockbridge said she felt anxiety for Biles before the elite gymnast even arrived in Tokyo. “You listen to the commentary. It is so much pressure. Now you are expected to be perfect. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I hope things pan out,’” said Hennagan, an Olympian from the 2000 and 2004 Games who medaled as a member of the 4x400 meter relay team in women’s track and field.

Hennagan noted that none of the criticism heaped on Biles seemed to come from fellow athletes, who likely understand the isolation Biles must feel as one of a handful of Black gymnasts. “It made me think … as a Black female gymnast, who do you have to mentor you through this process as another Black female gymnast because you are almost like an anomaly?” Hennagan said.

Mental health professionals have detailed the challenges of Black women living in a society that expects them to be strong to a breaking point, Evans said. They have internalized the stereotype — always projecting themselves as strong, always modulating their emotions, always saying yes when they mean no — to cope with the daily impacts of gender and race discrimination in their lives.

“We learn over and over that while it is necessary for Black women to be strong because of the personal, social, political and economic challenges we face, strength has its limits when we cannot admit or rely on others for support when needed or when we are refused the right of rest because we are expected to be superhuman,” Evans said.

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Many of the comments about Biles, Osaka and Richardson have conflated the overwhelming emotional challenges they have faced with personal shortcomings, which only intensifies the harm they are already feeling, Evans said.

“It is a mistake ... to interpret environmental and historical problems Black women have faced into a personal deficit. Many Black women who face overlapping challenges have problems but Black women are not the problem,” she said. “There are so many layers to this. It is imperative to turn to mental health professionals for holistic interpretations, and to listen more closely to the athletes themselves.”

When she was competing, Hennagan said she relied on faith to help her create a positive mindset that would allow her body to perform at peak. She also reminded herself that in 10 years, she would look back on any given moment and it would be no big deal. But in an era of everlasting social media, today, athletes may find it a lot harder to imagine that kind of freedom.

“(Sports officials) need to be putting things in place to navigate that so women and athletes in general can have the resources necessary to deal with it,” Hennagan said.

Throughout history, for Black women at least, to say “no” to the demands of others has been considered an act of resistance that turns the personal into something far more political.

When we continue to emphasize self-reliance over self-compassion, we reinforce the mandate that the people receiving harm are also the ones charged with changing the world, Evans said. But one of the primary ways to bring forth the kind of systemic changes being called for in the Olympics and the larger society is to actually take a step back and take care of yourself.

“I wrote a book about inner peace because historically Black women’s narratives hold many solutions to understanding and addressing the challenges we have today,” Evans said. “Self-care has growing momentum but again it is challenged because it is that balance between self-care and fighting for social justice. Done well, those two are not at odds.”

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