Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

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).

Recommended Content:

Psychological Fitness | Total Body Preventive Health - Dental, Medical & Mental

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."

You also may be interested in...

Kristin Gwin, Walter Reed Social Worker Talks About Getting Help

Video
9/12/2018
Kristin Gwin, Walter Reed Social Worker Talks About Getting Help

Kristin Gwin, a Social Worker at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center understands that getting help can be an intimidating process. She offers advice on how to get started by letting a professional know you want help.

Recommended Content:

Suicide Prevention | Psychological Fitness | Talking About Afghanistan

Breathing techniques

Photo
2/26/2016
Breathing techniques

Airmen and Soldiers practice breathing and relaxation during their off duty time in a deployed location. Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Recommended Content:

Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Psychological Fitness

Overview of the Integrated Mental Health Strategy

Presentation
8/19/2013

Overview of the Integrated Mental Health Strategy presented to the Defense Health Board

Recommended Content:

| Psychological Fitness

Update on DoD Mental Health Policies and Programs

Presentation
11/27/2012

Defense Health Board Update on DoD Mental Health Policies and Programs

Recommended Content:

| Psychological Fitness

Omega 3 Fats Physical and Mental Health Benefits

Presentation
11/14/2011

Omega 3 Fats Physical and Mental Health Benefits briefing presented to the Defense Health Board Nov. 14, 2011

Recommended Content:

| Psychological Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

Psychiatric Medications and Complementary and Alternative Medical Treatments

Presentation
8/18/2010

Psychiatric Medications and Complementary and Alternative Medical Treatments briefing presented to the Defense Health Board Aug. 18, 2010

Recommended Content:

| Psychological Fitness

Mental Health Task Force Update

Presentation
12/5/2006

Mental Health Task Force Update to the Defense Health Board presented December 5, 2006

Recommended Content:

| | Psychological Fitness
<< < ... 6 7 8 > >> 
Showing results 106 - 112 Page 8 of 8
Refine your search
Last Updated: April 18, 2022

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.