Simone Biles and mental illness

For the past two weeks the press, radio and television have given us saturation coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, much of it focused, inevitably, on stories of personal and national triumph, especially the achievements of Britain’s swimmers. 

But running through the coverage there has been another thread: the story of American gymnast, Simone Biles.  Blessed with extraordinary talent, brilliantly successful, and held in awe by her fellow competitors, she withdrew from event after event out of concern for her personal mental health, and that decision has evoked almost the same level of admiration as her performances on vault, beam and uneven bars.

No details have emerged about the precise nature of her concerns, but the story is a timely reminder that no stigma should attach to mental illness, that none of us is immune to it, and that it is no barrier to high achievement.  Living with it, Biles became the world’ s greatest-ever gymnast, Martin Luther changed the direction of European civilisation, Charles Spurgeon reached out to thousands as the Prince of Preachers, and Winston Churchill achieved greatness not only as a war-leader but as a brilliant historian.

But it would be false to paint too rosy a picture.  There were days when these high achievers were in the depths, disabled from work and plagued with the darkest thoughts; and in every community, not least our own Western Isles, there are those who are imprisoned in a darkness and hopelessness from which neither their own efforts, the support of their families or a combination of counselling, therapy or medication, can deliver them.  The observer, and even the carer, may find it exasperating; the sufferer feels only that she is alone, that no one understands and that no one is listening.

Current publicity has raised the profile of mental illness, but it has also fostered the belief that if only we face up to it, effective treatment is within easy reach.  Things have certainly improved since the days when ‘asylums’ had nothing to offer but straitjackets, the ‘chemical cosh,’ lifelong confinement and electro-convulsive therapy; and if such institutions were grim in themselves, the situation was made infinitely worse by the fact that it was all too easy to have people committed to them.  Many a woman suffering from the effects of the menopause or post-natal depression found herself certified insane on the instigation of her husband, and spent the rest of her life confined in an institution, perfectly sane. 


Still a long way from understanding mental illness

Such horrors are, thankfully, a thing of the past, though the experience of Britney Spears should serve as a salutary warning.  But we are still a long way from understanding not only such psychoses as schizophrenia, but even more common afflictions like depression and anxiety.  If we knew what caused them, we would have a better chance of providing effective treatment, but we don’t, perhaps because there is no one cause, but a whole bundle of factors. 

In some cases, the main cause is our biochemistry, but that doesn’t mean that chemicals can provide an instant answer.  Many other factors besides biochemistry affect our mental health: for example, abuse in childhood, the death of a parent or beloved sibling, chronic unemployment, bullying at work, or a broken relationship. And in too many instances, mental illness is the result of self-abuse through drugs or alcohol.           

The outcome of all this is that those suffering from mental illness face a long haul.  Anti-depressants have, indeed, been much refined, but none is quick-acting, and if you are having an acute episode it’s little comfort to be told that you won’t feel much benefit for a month, and that in the meantime the medication may make your depression worse.  It then takes considerable strength of character to persevere with it.


Medication not the only support

Fortunately, however, medication is not the only support available.  Apart from giving you a prescription, a good GP will guide you to a whole raft of services, including a Community Psychiatric Nurse, who will provide regular contact and point you to the wide range of local helps.  Stornoway has a Mental Health Support Group consisting, not of professionals, but of people who have themselves suffered mental illness and, by sharing their experiences, help you to see that you are not a freak.  Most communities now have similar facilities. 

What about ministers?  They’re not trained to give psychiatric counselling.  In fact, they’re trained not to, but instead to advise anyone showing signs of clinical mental illness to go to their GP (and to disregard the myths they hear about pills and psychiatrists).

But just as there are problems that ministers are not trained to deal with, so there are problems that GPs and psychiatrists are not trained to deal with: problems about our relationship with God, consciences troubled by some one sin in the past, minds haunted by vain regrets, fears for the future, and even, sometimes, anger against God.  These, too, deserve a listening ear, but not one that only listens.  It must also be able to shed the light of the gospel on whatever is troubling the soul.

We live in an age when people are struggling to find an identity.  For some, it is the colour of their skin; for others, their sexuality; for yet others it the football team they support.   But some might also find it in their being mentally ill; and even if they themselves don’t, that may be what defines them in other people’s eyes. 

We mustn’t allow that to happen.  Simone Biles is not simply a woman liable to mental illness.  She is a brilliant gymnast, and much else; and the same is true of everyone who suffers from the same vulnerability.  No one can be summed up in the in the words, ‘I’m John, and I suffer from mental illness.’


 This article first appeared in the Stornoway Gazette, 5th August 2021.