Simone Biles, Sexual Abuse, and Mental Health

Simone Biles. Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Content warnings: Sexual abuse, suicide

One of the major stories of the recently concluded Summer Olympics was how decorated American gymnast Simone Biles was ultimately not involved in several of the events that she qualified for as a result of her struggles with mental health. Reaction to this seemed a bit split: many praised her for prioritizing her mental health, while some critics thought of her as a quitter.

Just to clarify, I fall into the former category, not the latter. I think Simone Biles did the right thing in prioritizing her mental health, even if it meant missing some major events this Olympics. To do otherwise would’ve been a danger to her mental and her physical health, which is more important than any Olympic medal.

Yet, at the same time, it seems like there’s often been something missing from the conversations about Simone Biles and her mental health. That “something” is how sexual abuse is statistically shown to have a major negative impact on one’s mental health. Biles is a very famous example of this fact, and as such is someone whose story should highlight that fact.

As many know by now, Biles was one of many women from the United States Gymnastics Team abused by former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.[1] And when I say many women, I mean many—she was among the 156 women who, in some form, confronted Nassar in court about his abuse.[2] However, she is the last woman knowingly abused by Nassar who is still on the United States Gymnastics Team. And, you can tell that Biles is still working through the abuse she experienced just by listening to her—after struggling on one of the nights of Olympic trials, she said that she was more emotional this year than in 2016 “because of everything I’ve been through.”[3] While yes, there have been other factors that have impacted her mental health, such as a sudden family death during the Olympics,[4] it seems impossible to deny that the mental health struggles related to the abuse she experienced have also affected her.

Yet, it’s not just Biles who is affected mentally as a result of abuse. It’s many other people, too. About 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress. 33% of women who are raped contemplate taking their lives. 13% of women who are raped actually attempt to take their lives.[5] Numbers like these show that Biles’ mental health struggles in the wake of what Larry Nassar did to her do not exist in a bubble; instead, she is a very public example of how such struggles in the light of abuse manifest themselves.

As such, while the story of Simone Biles should be a call to all of us as individuals and our society as a whole to have a greater focus on mental health, her story should arguably, even more importantly, be a call to have a greater focus on the mental health of sexual abuse survivors than what we currently do. While Biles is fortunate to be able to have a therapist,[6] not everyone is so fortunate for one reason or another, whether it be financial costs of going to therapy or still struggling through their own stigmas surrounding it. Our society needs to do a better job of addressing those barriers, because the well-being and lives of those sexually abused count on it.

If you’re in the United States, experienced sexual abuse and need help, know that you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone line, which is (800) 656-4673. If you don’t live in the United States, please check to see if there’s a helpline for sexual abuse survivors in your country.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) also has an online hotline as well as an app that could be of use to people who need help but are afraid to speak out loud for fear that their abuser will hear them.

The National Suicide Prevention lifeline is 800-273-8255. As for readers outside the United States, you can find an extensive list of international suicide hotlines here.


[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42725339

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/08/03/simone-biles-wins-bronze-her-most-powerful-mental-health-quotes/5452785001/

[4] https://abc13.com/simone-biles-withdraw-aunt-death-in-the-family/10929337/

[5] https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence

[6] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/08/03/simone-biles-wins-bronze-her-most-powerful-mental-health-quotes/5452785001/

35 Replies to “Simone Biles, Sexual Abuse, and Mental Health”

  1. I wonder if there would have been any difference in the public reaction if she’d announced something more specific than mental health issues. I don’t question her for a second, and she has no obligation to tell anyone anything, but people don’t necessarily have any idea what mental health issues would actually mean. Even people who support her are speculating based on what they know either about the effects of trauma or the commonness of gymnasts occasionally getting (and in some cases being severely injured by) “the twisties.” For people who have zero background knowledge about either of those things, I can see how they wouldn’t have a good understanding of why she pulled out. But then to take that lack of understanding and judge based on it is a whole other problem, and unfortunately, social media gives the judgy blowhards a much bigger platform than they deserve.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Hard to say. I think that there is this sort of macho mentality of just “bearing through it” that exists in some circles, and would still exist even if she went into certain specifics of what exactly she’s going through. Though she has gone into a fair bit of detail in certain ways too–she has talked about how she lost a loved one during the Olympics, and how the past abuse she’s experienced has made it difficult from a mental health standpoint.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Sexism probably comes into it too. I don’t what the equivalent name to the twisties would be, but if a male snowboarder competing in the X-games pulled out because PTSD symptoms triggered the onset of something like the twisties that caused them to lose their ability to sense where they are in the air, I’m guessing that more people would be able to recognize that breaking their neck would not be a reasonable risk for that snowboarder to take compared to people being able to see basically the same thing in the case of Biles.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Oh, I’m sure sexism is a factor. As well as lack of knowledge of the fact that there are certain things that you just cannot safely compete with (whether it be the twisties and gymnastics or a functional equivalent for snowboarding).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rodeo people have a catchphrase, “Cowboy up!” It doesn’t matter how much pain you are in, or how many broken bones you might have, you are expected to ride your next event. If you can’t make it, you better be dead!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. She also stated in one interview that she experienced a “trigger” while she was there. People don’t know what the trigger was or how it compromised here. She doesn’t owe anyone anything. Her team and family were behind her and that is what she needed. Gymnastics is a dangerous sport and if you are not in the right headspace it can be even worse. I applaud here for realizing what was happening and fixing it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I was aware of that. And it is extremely important to make sure you are in the right headspace for gymnastics, which she said she wasn’t. Which then affects her mentally, but also physically as well, potentially.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    I’m not into sports, don’t pay any attention to the summer Olympics, but during the past weeks, my curiosity has been roused as I kept hearing some very strong opinions, both pro and con, for a young Olympic gymnast named Simone Biles. I kept meaning to further investigate, but other topics have kept me busy. So, I was pleased to see Brendan’s post today about Ms. Biles, a positive view, thankfully. Thank you, Brendan!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I’m glad. And I think it’s important to approach things with compassion and empathy here, especially with stuff we are not familiar with (for example, I have no idea what it’s like to have the twisties).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely! Empathy and compassion seem to have largely gotten tromped on by greed and arrogance these days. I am appalled by some of the criticism I’ve seen of Ms. Biles by people who have no idea what her life is like. Thanks for all that you do, my friend, to bring this and more to the public eye.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Brendan, thanks for this well crafted piece. It is hard to anoint someone the Greatest of All Time, while still performing. She keeps pushing the envelope to be even better and put a lot of pressure on herself, in a sport that can easily injure her. Once she lost her confidence, it impacted everything. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Keith. I know she did routines so extraordinary that judges didn’t know how to judge her. But she got the twisties, which apparently many a gymnastics person has experienced, and apparently can result in serious injury if one is not careful.

      Like

  5. Hi dear
    Your story was deeply insightful. Please can you give me permission to write your story in my blog. It will be a great impact in my readers who have been through similar situation. It will be an appreciable thing for me and my readers.

    Liked by 1 person

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