Paying Attention to Mental Health Isn't a Weakness, Especially Today

(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The conversation surrounding Simone Biles has taken a very odd turn and I watched as many in the conservative movement began jumping on the Olympic athlete as a quitter and a wuss. Moreover, you had quite a few questioning her patriotism for focusing on her own feelings more than she did represent her country in a good way.

The issue boils down to seeing after one’s mental health, which was Biles’s primary concern for pulling out of the games. When many people came to her defense, I saw many others proclaim that we’ve entered an age where one’s feelings come before duty and that we’re becoming a nation of wusses.

Here’s the thing. The people defending Biles aren’t wrong, but the people concerned that we’ve entered a state in our societal development where we’ve become too obedient to our feelings isn’t wrong either. That said, I think it’s important that we differentiate between what Biles is going through, and what the average American is going through.

I don’t think I need to tell you that Biles is an athlete that only comes around every so often in her sport. Someone who excels at it so much that they literally redefine the sport. Biles joins the likes of Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Pele. This comes with pressures that you and I will likely never have to experience. Expectations we’ll never have to live up to.

On top of that, Biles’s success means more press and media attention, photoshoots, brand deals, trending topics, and endless discussion. It may seem like a great problem to have but after the luster of being in the spotlight wears off, the bright light begins to give you a headache. It’s a lot to take in. Too much, in fact, and it can scramble thoughts and emotions. It used to be about the sport, now it’s about everything else, and everything else is very demanding on the body and mind.

Who knows what else Biles was having to deal with in the background? My colleague Jeff Charles had some outstanding comments about this, and I suggest you read his take on Biles’s withdrawal.

Biles withdrew because she was clearly in danger mentally and if your mind goes, everything else goes with it.

I can show you a lineup of celebrities that didn’t look after their mental health, or worse, weren’t allowed to look after it. Almost any given Disney Channel child star is a good start. Drug addictions, hardcore porn, and just out-of-control, bizarre behavior. Then there’s Britney Spears who was pushed so far that she literally lost control of her sanity and subsequently lost control of her life, and now it’s become a national conversation about conservatorship laws.

Biles is under similar pressure and her withdrawal from it all at this time isn’t selfish, it’s wise.

Mental health is only something we’ve relatively been looking after recently and for good reason. The world used to be a far more simple place, but the introduction of the internet has changed the way we interact with the world and it’s hardly healthy. It used to be that a person’s world went about as far as the borders of their town. The most you got in terms of sociability were neighbors and family members. Someone having the attention of millions of people at a time was incredibly rare.

Today, everyone is under the world’s microscope. Millions have access to you at any given time and humans are being raised to see the world as its immediate community while its local community couldn’t be further away. These people don’t really know you but they think they know you based on a crumb-level interaction or rumor about you, and you have to deal with that. I say “you have to,” because being online is pretty much the only way to get anything done nowadays. Everything from applying for a job to shopping is done mostly online nowadays.

The human brain isn’t meant for this kind of interaction. At any time you have a world of other humans judging you, directing you, praising you, cursing you, vying for your attention, and giving little to nothing in return. We seek community, as we do naturally, but the lack of consequence for stupidity result in bizarre and damaging subcultures that force others to deal with what they’re claiming they are. Denying them, or even not dealing with them, could result in consequences from the general public.

We feel more isolated and alone than we ever have despite having access to all the people in the world. It’s bound to harm us mentally in some way, shape, or form. For others, it’s not just going to drive them insane, and they’re going to do insane things.

This could mean anything from being pressured to fall in with the latest trends on gender-fluidity or it could mean you go out and shoot a bunch of people. We tend to talk about mental health when someone goes on a shooting rampage, and we’re right to, but it’s just as important that we see to mental health before they reach levels of self-harm as well, not just the harm of others.

Yes, it’s true that many people use mental health as an excuse for behaviors they know to be wrong. Utterly selfish behavior, laziness, and an unwillingness to contribute to society have been pardoned using “mental health” as a shield against criticism. They’re wrong to do so and should be called out for it.

However, let’s not confuse these people with someone needing to step back from all of us in order to right herself. Whether it’s an Olympic gold medalist or someone feeling the pressures of the world weighing down on them too heavily, taking a moment to sit in the quiet and get themselves in order isn’t just a good thing, it’s almost a requirement from time to time.

We don’t live in the world we used to and we need to remember that. It’s imperative that we do our duty and tough it out when things get bad, but sometimes the wisest thing to do is withdraw, and the best we can try to do is understand.

We should, as a society, face realities about our current condition as a society and the effects it has on us as a species. We should recognize what is and isn’t healthy about our behaviors, and draw lines that separate good behaviors in this current age from bad ones. We should work to identify when a person needs help or when a person is just being lazy, or when a person is just being a wuss or is actually on the verge of mental illness.

These definitions change from age to age, and they’ve definitely changed today. Once we iron out these guidelines, we’ll be far more understanding of plights like that of Simone Biles.