Simone Biles deserves all the praise for prioritizing her mental health. And it's a good reminder that many Americans can't afford to take time off when they need it.

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Simone Biles deserves all the praise for prioritizing her mental health. And it's a good reminder that many Americans can't afford to take time off when they need it.
Simone Biles at the Tokyo Games. Gregory Bull/AP Images
  • Simone Biles was rightly praised for prioritizing her mental health during the Olympics.
  • But most people can't afford to take time off work when their mental health is suffering.
  • Calls for self care mean little if we don't make systemic changes to reduce economic stressors.
  • Nicole Froio is a freelance journalist and researcher. She writes about pop culture, feminism, queerness, violence against women, digital cultures and much more.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

This week, four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles withdrew from the 2020 Olympic Games to care for her mental health. After a wobbly vault run where Biles risked serious injury, the athlete admitted that the high stakes of the Olympics felt like too much, and the stress was affecting her performance.

"I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and my wellbeing," Biles said. "We're not just athletes, we're people at the end of the day, and sometimes you just have to step back."​

At 24, Biles made the difficult decision to quit and prioritize her own wellbeing over the possibility of winning gold - and the expectations of millions of fans. Her supporters rightfully note the amount of pressure Biles has been under, praising her wisdom to drop out before she hurt herself.

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And Biles and her supporters are right: Quitting when your work is harming you takes courage and is an immense burden to parse out. The fact Biles was able to understand her own limitations and communicate her boundaries to the world in such a high-pressure competition is no small feat, and she should be commended for it.

Many people have taken this moment to call on others to also take stock of their mental health and take a rest when they need it. Those of us who have struggled with mental illness for most of our lives are all too familiar with this phenomenon: There's a cycle of mental health affirmations that circulate on social media everytime a famous person opens up about their mental struggles.

The problem is that these affirmations don't actually reflect a society where mental self care is truly taken seriously. Particularly after a pandemic where many of us experienced death and trauma, but were barely granted time away from work to process a global disaster, the gap between "it's okay not to be okay" and actual mental health provisions at work feels enormous.

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Everyone should have the right to quit or take paid time off to care for their own wellbeing. But the reality is that many of us can't afford to take time off or quit, as much as we know our mental health is suffering. It's a fantasy to keep repeating that mental health is important and we must care for it, without actually looking at the crushing pressures of capitalism and how they manifest in the workplace. The constant grind of working for food and shelter doesn't allow most workers to take time off for self care and rest.

I can't afford to pause for my mental wellbeing

By far, one of the hardest parts of being mentally ill is dealing with work stressors and financial responsibilities. I have been semi-public about my struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and depression for almost a decade, and I was recently diagnosed with PTSD. As part of my treatment plan, I'm being encouraged to slow down the pace of my working life, but quitting isn't simply a matter of choice.

As a freelance journalist, I have to follow the news cycle to make money and be able to pay rent and bills. I wish I could simply drop everything and take extended time off. But I can't afford to spend a whole month unpaid, nor do I feel like I can risk editors forgetting that I'm available to be commissioned by being on hiatus.

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Plus, treating any mental illness is expensive. Though I'd love to only focus on becoming mentally well rather than working, I also need to make enough money to pay for my mental health treatment out of pocket. In addition to paying for food and rent, I also need to pay for my medication, my psychiatrist, and my therapist.

It's a never ending cycle: I should slow down to take care of myself, but to take care of myself, I need to make money, so I exhaust myself to make money and be able to pay for treatment. The odds are against me, but my situation can illuminate what we should be focusing on when we talk about mental health and wellbeing. There needs to be efforts to care for our mental health that go beyond the rhetorical.

We need systemic changes to truly prioritize mental health

A good place to start would be raising the minimum wage and decreasing job insecurity. A recent study determined that a mere $1 increase in minimum hourly wage can decrease suicide rates. Job insecurity is directly related to higher rates of anxiety and somatic symptoms, so creating jobs where people feel secure is essential to caring for people's mental health.

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Prioritizing mental health has to be a concrete possibility for everyone, even when their wages are high and they have a secure job. This means that employers, institutions, and governments have to prioritize mental health over productivity and profit, rather than sending out memos and social media posts with empty platitudes about taking care of our mental health. Paid time off without consequences and a good healthcare plan are basic mental health provisions any employer should be giving their employees.

Biles is right: Everyone should have the right to quit harmful situations that are detrimental to their mental health. But no matter how many infographics I see on Instagram that tell me my mental health is the most important thing in my life, the rhetorical affirmation that I deserve to be well won't change my current material inability to slow down and get the treatment I deserve. We need concrete ways to care for ourselves and our minds, and that requires major structural changes in our places of work and in how we make our money.

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