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. 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. 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.” While yes, there have been other factors that have impacted her mental health, such as a sudden family death during the Olympics, 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. 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, 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.