No one could have predicted the stunning announcement that Simone Biles would remove herself from the Olympic team competition where she was expected to lead the USA gymnasts to a gold medal. No one, that is, except anyone paying attention to Biles’s own words over the past several years.
Beyond the celebrations of her massive successes, Biles’s social media comments have also revealed levels of stress and anxiety that are endemic to her generation. According to the American Psychological Association, young people today are exhibiting more signs of mental health challenges than any generation before them.
One study revealed that 60 percent of young people have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of stress caused by pressure to succeed. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported that major depression in youth between the ages of 12 and 17 increased 52 percent over a 12-year period and increased 63 percent for those 18 to 25.
More worrisome, these trends do not include the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of this generation. One national study of Gen Z during the pandemic reported higher levels of depression, loneliness, and anxiety. That data could be replicated by additional research over the next few years.
Biles has spoken openly about her own feelings of insecurity as she struggled with her life under a magnifying glass of scrutiny and the impact of social media trolls who dissect her physical appearance even as she defies gravity in competition. She shared on a Facebook broadcast her feelings as a survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, along with the abusive training regimen at the Karolyi Ranch.
More telling, on the evening before she withdrew from the competition, Biles shared on Instagram the pressures that she had been under at the Olympics, stating, “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha!” The words of laughter at the end of the sentence may have been meant to ease the message of pain, just as emojis provide a salve to ease otherwise harsh communications. Yet they revealed her mental state and foreshadowed the events of the next day.
Just as she has been a role model and leader for her team and a universe of young people who admire her drive and success, Biles is now teaching a different lesson. She is showing her generation that there is a price to be paid for ignoring the warning signs of stress on long-term mental health. To reclaim her well-being, she had to reveal her struggles to the entire world. Her message is clear: Heed the warnings and seek help.
Biles is also serving as a teacher to older generations — to the parents, teachers, coaches, co-workers, and colleagues of those who are struggling. Pay attention to young people, particularly their primary forms of communication with their world.
Social media posts can be revelatory, even when followed by the obligatory positive emoji or words that suggest laughter. We ignore the underlying distress at their future peril.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is the author of “The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.”