When I look back on the summer of 2021, I will, of course, remember our continued fight against the pandemic and the remote working environment. I will certainly remember my struggle with voicing the feelings that isolation and separation from family, friends and colleagues caused.
But I will also remember the dazzling display of athleticism at the Tokyo Olympics and the two women who spoke openly about mental health and provided much-needed lessons to the world on how we can best take care of ourselves.
In June, tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and decided not to participate in the Wimbledon Championships, citing mental health issues. While she competed in the Tokyo Olympics, she lost in an early round. Then later, she broke down in tears when questioned about it relentlessly at a media event.
In July, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from several Olympic events, saying she was not in the right place mentally to compete, citing dangers to her physical well-being if she continued.
While both women garnered considerable praise for speaking openly about mental health, they also faced some angry and, at times, vicious criticism. Both critics and former supporters opined that the athletes were merely weak, that they had let their country down and had failed to live up to more traditional notions of competition and pushing through adversity. There was an ugly rhetoric: from those who blasted Biles—the most decorated gymnast in the world—as “a selfish, childish national embarrassment” and called Osaka “the world sport’s most petulant little madam.”
In this post, we are interested in addressing a long-standing cultural bias against openly acknowledging mental health as a fundamental component of individual well-being. It’s way, way past time that we stop framing discussions of mental health in the context of weakness or failure.
Part of being strong, part of being healthy, is knowing when you are not—and being willing to say that, without fearing judgement or being ashamed. Ignoring the stresses and obstacles in our lives does not make them go away. Taking the time to face them, acknowledge them, work on them and even ask for help is a far healthier and more productive way to turn that proverbial corner.
As we weather this pandemic, one of the silver linings that should be acknowledged is an appreciation for the fact that it’s OK to say we’re not OK. Let’s celebrate that kind of vulnerability because truly taking care of ourselves and others means we have to start from a place of honesty.
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