3 Powerful Lessons Simone Biles Taught the World

Mena Mirhom, MD


July 29, 2021

Imagine working your whole life for a moment, only to find that moment taken from you in a way that you could never anticipate. For many, that may be a dream promotion at work or a great new job. For Olympic athletes like Simone Biles, it is to represent your country and bring home a gold medal.

But the world was stunned by her announcement to withdraw from Olympic competition.

How could this be? How can a young, healthy person who is widely considered the greatest gymnast in the world withdraw? Surely, there must be an injury.

But what if that injury is invisible?

Invisible Wounds of Behavioral Health and Just as Painful

Many people are surprised to learn that the number-one cause of disability worldwide is not diabetes or heart disease. It is actually depression! This is stunning because we sometimes forget the pervasive nature of this kind of pain and how debilitating it can be — that it can truly disable an individual. It does just that for millions of people around the world every single day. Today is no exception.

If an athlete withdraws from competition because they injured their knee, there is disappointment but there is no surprise. We understand that if your leg is limited, surely you can't perform a physically demanding task. But what about if your mind is limited?

This is the first life-changing truth that Simone Biles shed light on with her experience. Invisible wounds are no less painful and certainly no less debilitating.

For Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, there was a time when he not only did not want to compete, but he did not want to live. This type of pain is so powerful that it can sideline Olympic athletes and take the joy out of world-famous comedians, fashion designers, and global explorers. You and I are not immune and we are not alone.

Ignoring the Health of Your Mind Is a Serious Risk to Your Body

Even if you're not an Olympic gymnast like Biles, we've known for years that the health of our mind has a significant impact on our physical health. Impaired mental health can increase our risk for dementia, diabetes, and heart disease, among many other physical conditions.

Simone realized that her risk for injury increases if her mind is not present and able to function at its full capacity. Do we realize the same?

The opposite is also true. My patients are often pleasantly surprised that when their mind's health is improving, so is their diabetes management and cholesterol. The connection is evident in the lifestyle choices we can make when we feel our best. When our mind is healthy, we are able to make better social connections to maintain our support, and we make much better choices with what we eat or how we spend our time.

The World Is Behind You

There was a time when athletes or pop culture figures would not dare discuss any behavioral health struggle publicly for fear of the fierce backlash. But that time is over. We now see a global outpouring of empathy, support, and encouragement for Simone. The very fabric of our society has shifted to begin to understand the pain that has been endured silently for decades.

This evolution in our frame of mind also has entered your workplace. The people you now work with are more likely to recognize the importance of mental health than someone would have 50 years ago. This is a critical fact for us to keep in mind as we prioritize our mental health.

Most importantly, there is real hope now. We see that treatment is available, safe, and effective. The narrative for every athlete who struggles does not end with their struggle. We see this most recently illustrated in Naomi Osaka who, after taking time away, returned now in the Olympics in a healthy frame of mind and body.

So for any of us who may struggle, remember that the struggle is not the end. We can follow the bold and courageous example of these women and men. As we cheer for them to win the gold, we walk with them in the pursuit of our own health.

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About Dr. Mena Mirhom
Mena Mirhom, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and teaches writing to public psychiatry fellows. He is a board-certified psychiatrist and a consultant for the National Basketball Players Association, treating NBA players and staff.
Connect with him on Twitter @drmirhom, Instagram (@drmirhom), or at


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