Simone Biles & The Olympics: The Mental Health Issue Not Being Discussed

Erin Schaefer, PCC-S, IMFT-S

When I first heard about Simone Biles removing herself from the gymnastic competition due to a “medical issue”, I was concerned about whether she had hurt her leg or sprained something, a devastating injury for an Olympic athlete. Once word came out that, in fact, she had removed herself due to mental health issues, I said, “oh of course, that makes perfect sense!”  However, the reaction on social media and the internet was swift and ran the gamut from, “She is so strong and so brave” to “How could she let down her teammates and the country?  She should have just pushed through it!”

To be clear, I am not a gymnast, no matter how much my younger self tried to make that happen in my front yard in the summer. However, I am a licensed therapist and counselor, so I understand the field of mental health. What I know about USA Gymnastics is more related to my field of knowledge:  prior to the Olympics, I had read a lot about the horrible sexual abuse scandal, revealed just a few of years ago. Larry Nassar, former Team USA Gymnastics doctor, had been convicted and imprisoned for sexually abusing hundreds of female gymnasts over his many years as the team doctor.  The scandal was exposed in 2016; he was convicted in 2017.  This is the first Olympics since all the information has come forth.

When I heard about Simone removing herself for mental health issues, I immediately thought of trauma. Trauma embeds itself in our brains, our bodies, and our minds.  It infects all our senses and imprints on us when an event occurs. Trauma can also linger, hovering underneath, waiting to surface without warning. When a person experiences trauma, that person can be triggered by memories of that trauma by almost anything:  a noise, a smell, a similar scene, or even a repetition of a similar experience. Sometimes, trauma reappears in the form of a flashback of the original event. In some cases, the trauma can be triggered and manifest itself in ways that do not even seem to be connected to the original traumatic event. For instance, someone who experienced trauma as a very young child might not have any memory of the actual abuse, but when returning to the location where previous abuse had occurred, the person might experience a sleep disturbance and not even know why. This physical manifestation of the trauma is part of the body’s “memory” of the event and the cues of what happened there. However, the body “knows” and the brain “remembers” even when the conscious mind does not.

To me, Simone’s case could easily be connected to the trauma she has experienced. Being back in a high-pressure competitive situation, the first Olympics since the scandal was brought to light, can be very “triggering”. Even though it might not be conscious for her, it is quite possible her body and mind are reacting to that stimulus and trying to make sense of it. Obviously, I am not her therapist, her counselor, or her doctor; I am merely an outsider, looking in. For me, the most important thing is that she is listening to her body AND her mind, as both are telling her, “Something is not right here.” Slowing down to listen, adjusting as she goes, and giving herself space and time is absolutely essential for her as an elite athlete – and a great lesson for the rest of us. Let her example be a reminder to us all to be patient with ourselves and to look out for each other. 

The Author: Erin Schaefer, PCC-S, IMFT-S, is the Executive Vice President/Executive Director at Catalyst Life Services.  She received a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pacific Lutheran University in 1997 and a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling in 2002 from the University of Akron.  Erin has worked in community mental health for over 20 years.  She was also director of Ashland Parenting Plus, a small nonprofit agency focused on teen pregnancy prevention, juvenile diversion, and parent education.  She served on the board and as president of the Ohio Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and also on the board of directors of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy from 2011-2013, and is currently the Treasurer. She has been a member of AAMFT since 1997 and is a Clinical Fellow.  Erin is a catalyst for Empathy.