Commentary

Simone Biles can help Black America beat the mental health stigma — Opinion

August 9, 2021 6:00 am

TOKYO, JAPAN – AUGUST 03: Simone Biles of Team United States in action during the Women’s balance beam final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

How dare Simone Biles have faults?  

People have taken out after this young woman like she developed mental health issues just to spite everyone. What good does it do to take one for the team when you’re not confident the team has your back? Had she soldiered on and failed, reinjuring herself in the process, we woulda heard: “Why didn’t she quit while the team was ahead?” 

Ultimately, after what must’ve been considerable reflection, Biles reversed herself to compete on the balance beam. She won bronze; while nobody brags about coming in third, it was a victory – that and not breaking her neck due to “the twisties,” which is how she described it when her mind couldn’t make her body get the job done.

Now that she’s fairly vindicated, why weren’t Black communities behind her from the get-go? Confronting the hateful heat she caught as a quitter from doughy commentators. (Technically she was a quitter — and for a damned  good reason: Having the guts to realize she needed to safeguard her mental health.) Bottom line, Black folk should’ve had her back.

The 60s-era Black nationalist artists known as The Last Poets rhapsodized that we “have our minds tied to our behinds.” We stigmatize our own. Having trouble staying in one’s right mind is looked down on as being weak. Despite the fact that the likes of Jay-Z and Michelle Obama have talked about the benefits of therapy.

And Lord knows we need it: Black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

As the University of Southern California School of Social Work reported in 2019, “seeking mental health care is stigmatized within many Black communities, and just one in three African Americans who struggle with mental health issues will ever receive appropriate treatment.” 

McClean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, asks how to break down these barriers. “Statistics tell us that about 25% of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites.” And, again, it’s because we view people who get the treatment as weak. Here’s McClean: “The stigma of mental health isn’t new to the Black community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly had severe depression during periods of his life and refused psychiatric treatment, even when urged to seek care by his staff. Unfortunately, that scenario continues to be common today, with African Americans not seeking mental health care because of stigma.”

Though the iconic 24-year old Olympian ultimately acquitted herself, it was without enough support from her community, folk who had their chests out and head held high before she stumbled. There is no excuse for that.

Let’s use this moment to let people know it’s OK to be hurting, and to get help if you need it.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.