By Andy Bell
In the last week, the issue of mental health in sport has once again come to the foreground following US gymnast Simone Biles’ decision not to continue competing in some Olympic events.
As with Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open tennis earlier this year, Simone Biles’ decision has received mixed responses, with compassion and support from many, and spite and anger from some.
Disclosing mental health difficulties has never been easy. Whether you’re an international sportsperson or not, telling family and friends, work colleagues, school or the world’s media has always been a daunting prospect.
The freedom to speak safely and truthfully about our mental health is, it would appear, being pitted against the freedom to speak hurtfully about those who do
Global anti-stigma campaigns, such as Time to Change in England, have sought to make that easier by tackling prejudices, myths and fears about mental illness and by addressing discrimination against people living with mental health problems. It’s now more likely than ever that disclosing a mental health difficulty will be met by kindness, sensitivity and common sense. But it is not yet universal, and for too many people the opposite happens.
A disturbing recent court judgement, for example, ruled against a local authority director of public health, Lisa McNally, who was seeking protection against repeated aggressive statements by an individual blogger made following her disclosure of previous experience of mental illness.
It should not be an ordeal to disclose past or present distress, and perhaps as a result of the courage of the women who have used public platforms this year to speak out, it will not be so in the near future.
McNally and Biles have spoken publicly about their experiences of mental ill health to help others and to end the silence that imprisons so many people. It is disheartening to see them attacked and abused as a result. The freedom to speak safely and truthfully about our mental health is, it would appear, being pitted against the freedom to speak hurtfully about those who do.
While both have been subjected to unfair treatment, like the England football players who were faced with racial abuse after the Euro 2020 final, many more people have come out in support and solidarity. And that is where we can feel more hope. It should not be an ordeal to disclose past or present distress, and perhaps as a result of the courage of the women who have used public platforms this year to speak out, it will not be so in the near future.
We need to create a society where no one feels afraid to speak about their mental health or their experiences of mental health treatment. We must not go back to the culture of fear, suspicion and silence that for too long left people feeling alone and without hope. If this year marks a turning point, it will not be before time.