Photo courtesy of Danilo Borges/brasil2016.gov.br

By Leah Harris

Simone Biles, widely considered to be the world’s G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) gymnast, made international news last month when she decided to pull out of the women’s team gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles told the world. 

What’s worth noting is that the vast majority of the public, including her corporate sponsors, applauded Biles – in part, a testament to the progress made by mental health activists who have been fighting stigma for decades. There has also been a generational shift in Biles’ generation, Generation Z, which tends to be more open about discussing mental health challenges and seeking support. 

Credit: Lalo Alcaraz

Biles credits fellow athlete, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, with inspiring her decision. In May, Osaka withdrew from the French Open, disclosing that she had lived with “long bouts of depression” since 2018. Like Biles, she received an overwhelmingly positive response from her sponsors and from the public. Biles and Osaka join a rising chorus of athletes – many of them young Black women — who are openly rejecting the culture of competition at any cost.

And it’s not just star athletes, or celebrities like Meghan and Harry, but also non-famous workers who have been prioritizing their mental health. As Anna North writes in Vox, “Record numbers of workers from retail to restaurants to offices have left their jobs this year, often citing mental health as a factor. In one 2020 survey, 80 percent of workers said they would consider quitting for a role that offered better support for mental well-being.”  

Amidst a global pandemic, where an unprecedented number of people have found themselves pushed to the breaking point, there has been a renewed public conversation about mental health and work. Many discussions have touched on the need for public policies such an improved safety net that would allow people to leave jobs to care for their mental health– without losing access to health insurance. 

 “At the end of the day, we’re human too so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles told reporters last month. Her decision has shown the world that it’s not just OK, but necessary, to put mental health first. 

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Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.