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Why Simone Biles’ Mental Health Struggle Matters for Military Troops

Image of Gymnasts posing for a picture. Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz (left, with a silver medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, sharing a happy moment with Mexico's Mariana Arceo, center, and Cuba's Leydi Moya) is competing in modern pentathlon at the Tokyo Olympics. Like other athletes, Schultz sought the help of a psychologist to prepare for the games (Courtesy photo).

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Like many Americans, military service members and commanders have taken notice of the withdrawal from Olympic competition last week of superstar gymnast Simone Biles, who cited mental health concerns after uncharacteristic missteps in the early stages of competition.

"Gymnasts are some of the strongest athletes in the world and elite masters of complex skills unrivaled by other athletes," said Air Force Lt. Col. Regina Owen, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and a professor at the Uniformed Services University (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.

Many members of the military have comparable traits, she said. Like Biles, service members are typically young, fit, well-trained and routinely strong - both physically and mentally.

To Owen, Biles is "an elite individual" who displayed great strength by forgoing Olympic competition and chose instead to focus on building her mental strength.

"She had more numerous endorsements - i.e. "mental noise" - clamoring for her attention than most American Olympians leading up to the Olympics," she said.

"Those types of distractions undermine mental wellbeing and physical capabilities."

Owen likened Biles's situation to military service members who are training or preparing for deployments, when "mental focus is essential [and] improved physical preparation will follow."

"Military members need to be empowered to prioritize building mental strength and provided adequate resources to avoid distractions undermining their mental wellbeing" Owens said.

Biles returned to compete in the balance beam final on Tuesday, August 3rd, the last event of the women's gymnastics competition, and won a bronze medal.

The message of prioritizing mental health fitness and performance psychology has been reverberating throughout the military community, especially in light the global pandemic, when many troops and veterans have reported increased feelings of isolation, depression and increased drinking.

"Mental health is health - period," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, during a visit to Alaska on July 24. Austin said he's particularly concerned about the number of suicides in the military. He stressed reducing stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance.

Biles, Ledecky, and Boykin signing a 35-ton steel plate
U.S. Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles, left, and Katie Ledecky, ship’s sponsors of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 80), and Jennifer Boykin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding, signed a 35-ton steel plate at Newport News Shipbuilding in August 2017 to start advance construction of Enterprise (Photo by U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries, by Matt Hildreth).

"If you're hurting, there are resources available," Austin said. "And I know that our leaders ... are committed to making those resources even more accessible and available."

Nevertheless, social media has been filled with chatter about Biles's decision, with both supporters and detractors weighing in on it. That includes comments by service members, who have accused Biles of being "weak," or worse.

But other elite athletes around the world are increasingly outspoken about their own mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression, and have vigorously supported Biles' decision as smart and brave.

Japanese tennis phenom Naomi Osaka, who grew up and trained in the United States, unexpectedly withdrew from the French Open tournament earlier this year, citing mental health issues. (Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron at the Tokyo opening ceremony, but lost in the third round of the games.)

American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, has even made mental health a centerpiece of his charitable foundation, which focuses on healthy living.

Other professional athletes, past and present, have been increasingly speaking out about mental health issues, including Hall of Fame quarterback and broadcaster Terry Bradshaw and Olympic figure-skating legend Dorothy Hamill.

"Every warrior is an athlete," according to the Consortium for Health and Military Performance at USU's website.

"Nutrition, physical training, resiliency - physical and mental - and recovery between missions and deployments is critical to the success and optimization of the warrior."

Nineteen military athletes are representing the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, including Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz, who has spoken freely about the mental aspect of her training and sought out the help of a psychologist in her preparation for the games. "I've prepared physically and mentally," she said earlier this year.

It's in keeping with the military's concept of Total Force Fitness, which is as much psychological and spiritual as it is physical. That means taking care of your own wellbeing and having the back of those in your unit.

"Take this moment to reach out and support one another." Owen suggested. "The time is now."

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