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Biles' decision to withdraw from Olympics brings issue of mental health to light for Black athletes, people of color

Simone Biles
Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 22:16:19-04

MILWAUKEE — It was a decision that shocked the world: Simone Biles chose to withdraw herself from the Olympic women's all-around competition because of mental health concerns.

"When we don't open up and say what it is that we need, we will erupt," said trauma therapist Simmone Kilgore.

Biles' decision is now putting the topic of mental health in the limelight, and the stigma that surrounds African Americans and other people of color in asking for help.

Athletes, celebrities show support for Simone Biles

"In the African-American community, a lot of things were handled within the home," said Lakesha Jones, a licensed professional counselor and program administrator for La Causa Inc.

"When someone takes the opportunity to speak out loud about that, sometimes they are met with things that don't make them feel safe, like criticism or judgment," said Kilgore.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationally in 2019, 11% of white adults received counseling or therapy for their mental health. That's compared to 8% of Black adults and 7 percent of Hispanic adults. It's data Kilgore hopes will improve.

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"We definitely are still dealing with stigma, we are dealing with people not normalizing the idea of medication and therapy. Whether you use medicine or techniques, it does not matter. I think the best thing for folks is to do what they need to do to be well," said Kilgore.

Former Olympic gold medalist Kenny Harrison says he understands the struggles Black athletes face on a daily basis.

"You can't be average and win and still get the same acknowledgment, you have to be the super amazing person to get that same acknowledgment. The pressure and the stress that is put on these athletes it's crazy for people of color," said Harrison.

And with both Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka using their platforms to bring awareness to the mental health struggles they face, health experts are hoping this moment will be a conversation starter to begin to normalize the importance of taking care of yourself mentally.

"Mental illness should be talked about as if someone who had diabetes or high blood pressure. We want people to know that you're not going to be okay all the time, and that's okay as well," said Jones.

Health officials add that there's still more work to be done when it comes to destigmatizing mental health, but as a country, we're at least taking a step in the right direction.

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