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Simone Biles: Changing Attitudes, Stereotypes About Mental Health

August 04, 2021

Call it the summer of awareness as several high-profile athletes – first tennis phenom Naomi Osaka and, more recently, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles – temporarily sidestep competition to tend their mental health needs. “This is part of what we need to do to change attitudes and stereotypes about mental health,” said Dr. Javeed Sukhera, chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Living and chief of the Department of Psychiatry at Hartford Hospital. Biles’ withdrawal from almost all of her events in Tokyo to “practice mindfulness” and care for herself sharpened the focus on the connection between physical and mental health, Dr. Sukhera said. “The message has always been that physical and mental health are distinct, but this shows how intrinsically linked they are," he said. "You wouldn’t expect an athlete with a respiratory infection to perform at their best, and we shouldn’t expect anyone with anxiety, depression or any other mental health concern to either.” In her announcement, Biles said it would be unsafe to compete if her mental focus and health weren’t sharp. The move – which earned praise and support from such elite athletes as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps – is rare, especially for a Black woman, Dr. Sukhera noted. “In her case, there are even more challenges facing her. There’s intersectional stigma compounding the blame and shame that’s prevalent out there,” he said. Dr. Sukhera, who recently arrived at the Institute of Living, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, studies stigma in healthcare. He said misinformation and misunderstanding about the impact of mental health on performance in any setting fuels stigma. Calling public backlash against Biles “discouraging,” he predicted the negative message will not only affect her but others, including youth, who might not feel as empowered to stand up for their mental health needs. “It is harmful to perpetuate the idea that a person is faking mental health issues, which is one of the most common misconceptions out there,” Dr. Sukhera said. “Our research looks at stigma in healthcare and we’ve found it is very common for someone to be afraid to reveal mental health issues or care because they’ll be perceived as weak, unfit or unworthy.” This, he said, is “social stigma,” compared with “structural stigma” embodied in existing institutions and habits. He described, for example, how some states still ask doctors seeking medical licenses if they have any mental health issues or have sought mental health care. Reducing or eliminating such stigma is a complex task that will involve several approaches, Dr. Sukhera said. It helps that high-profile people like Biles and Osaka tell their stories, but greater general awareness about mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression is needed to “change the conversation,” he said.