Mental health is a topic we tend to avoid in our society. It’s the “dirty little secret” people whisper about and will talk about behind someone’s back. Many people are afraid that if other people know they are feeling down or anxious that people will think they are crazy. Especially if a teenager is going to psychotherapy. They assume many people will think of them like the person living in the streets and talking to themselves. This is not reality. This negative stigma makes it difficult for adults to seek help for mental health issues. This negative stigma also makes it very difficult for children and teenagers to ask for help when they feel depressed or anxious. They are afraid their friends won’t understand and won’t want to be friends with them. They are also afraid their parents will think they are crazy and be disappointed with them. These ideas are incorrect, but if mental health is overwhelming for an adult, imagine how it can be for a child.
It is very important that children and teenagers do ask for help when they are experiencing mental health issues. The CDC estimates 1in 5 children need psychotherapy for a mental health issue. Furthermore, the CDC has stated that Suicide is an epidemic for children between the ages of 10 and 18 years old and is the second leading cause of death for kids 10 to 18 years old. Cutting, self-harming behaviors, are also now at an epidemic rate in children. Furthermore, since the pandemic has started we have seen a significant increase in the number of teenagers seeking therapy for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Additionally, since the pandemic we have seen a significant increase in teenagers overdosing on drugs. Before the pandemic anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations and overdosing on drugs were at alarming rates in teenagers too (CDC). Teenagers have been dealing with mental health issues for years and the number of teenagers needing therapy has been increasing every year (CDC).
At the Tokyo Olympics an important light was placed on mental health issues. Simone Biles, took a huge step forward in removing the stigma from mental health issues. Simone came into the Tokyo Olympics with everyone expecting her to win gold in every event. In addition to this pressure, during the pandemic she came forward to say she too had been sexually abused by the team doctor for years. This was a huge thing to do especially since the entire world would learn about it. She stated she did not retire and continued with the Tokyo Olympics to ensure that the Olympic committee takes steps to protect the younger girls in the program.
Simone was dealing with a lot and we do not know what else is occurring in her private life. She had posted some posts on social media stating she was feeling slightly overwhelmed but that was the extent of what she said publicly. To everyone’s surprise on the first night of the Women’s team competition, Simone suddenly drop out of the competition. She confirmed she was dealing with some emotional issues but that she was okay and would decide about the rest of the competition later. She finally decided to remove herself from competition completely.
After she removed herself from competition, she commented about the overwhelming support she received. It sounded like she was expecting criticism not support. Additionally, she commented it was the first time in her life that she realized there was more to her as a person than just gymnastics. Making this realization made her feel very good about herself in the statement she released.
This month, after taking a mental health break, Simone Biles returned to competitive gymnastics and won the competition. Additionally, it appears she will be participating in the Olympics this year. She returned to the world stage not being ashamed of taking a mental health break and proved to everyone she was not defective because she needed a break and in fact showed she might even be better because she took the break.
Many parents are wondering what is the lesson to learn from what Simone Biles. As a psychotherapist, who works with teenagers and young adults, there are several lessons we can learn from Simone.
The first and in my opinion the most important lesson is that everyone deals with mental health issues daily and at times we may need to take a break or seek treatment. Simone handled her situation no differently than if she was having a medical issue such as tearing a ligament. She did not act ashamed not did people treat her like she was crazy. In fact, other competitors complimented her. They all have had struggles with mental health issues and they were happy and proud that Simone was taking care of herself and not acting embarrassed or ashamed that she had a mental health issue she needed help with. Therefore, the lesson is mental health is part of life and when you need help it’s okay to ask for help.
If we take this a step further, maybe we need to redefine how we view mental health. With the pandemic, mass school shootings and pressure to succeed, maybe all middle and high school students should have a mental health checkup every year just like they have a physical checkup every year before starting school. Given anxiety, depression, suicide and drug overdoses are at epidemic rates for their age groups, a mental health checkup makes sense. If we can identify teens who are beginning with these issues, we can make their lives easier by starting treatment earlier and we can also save lives by starting treatment earlier. Research with other health issues already show the earlier treatment is started the better the treatment outcome (CDC).
The next lesson is how people responded to her request. No one acted like she was crazy and the team coaches and her team mates were giving her the time and support she needed. Therefore, the second lesson is when a teenager asks for mental health help, we need to support them in getting the help they need without judging the person.
Many teens and parents are afraid if people know their teen is receiving mental health treatment that people will look down on them. However, research is showing to be healthy you need good physical and mental health (CDC). Asking for help doesn’t make someone weak. Simone Biles proved it takes a great deal of strength and if someone is asking for help, we should support that person not criticize or put them down.
Another important lesson is that asking for help did not destroy how people reacted to her or her accomplishments. She is still a world class gymnastics star and she won a silver team medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Therefore, asking for help did not ruin her life. If you have a teenager who needs mental health help, reassure them that it will not ruin their life. Asking for mental health care is no different than asking for physical health care. Our mental health and physical health go hand in hand. This is another lesson Simone taught us. Mentally she needed help and therefore she was not physically capable of competing.
Providing support to someone is another lesson Simone taught us. Her teammates, coaches, family and friends offered support abs would check-in with her. No one walked away which many teenagers fear if they say they need mental health care. Her support system was there for her. They did not smother her, but if she needed their help they were there.
Again offering support to someone who is dealing with a mental health issue is important. It’s important to be there on a regular basis. We can’t just be supportive once we hear about it and then forget. The person may be dealing with the issue for several months. Therefore, they need to feel that they have the support of family and friends, the entire time not just at the beginning.
Also commentators had been wondering if something was wrong because she was not acting like herself. Therefore, if your teenager or friend is acting somewhat differently and you are concerned, don’t be afraid to ask if they are having a problem. Sometimes asking for help can be difficult especially when you are a teenager. Therefore, if your teenager or friend is acting differently, do not be afraid to ask if they need help.
This is another important lesson. Often people will say well they were not acting like themselves. If you notice a family member or friend is not acting like themselves, ask if you can help or if they need help. Life is very confusing these days and they might need someone to help ask for help.
Finally we often assume people who look like they have everything they want, cannot have problems in their lives. Simone Biles is one of the most decorated Olympians in gymnastics history and she is having problems. Kevin Love, a pro basketball player, suffered from panic attacks. Here are two athletes at the top of their games, but they still have mental health issues. Therefore, we all have mental health issues and need therapy at times and there is no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed. It is simply part of life.
This is a very important lesson. Because of the negative stigma associated with mental health many people try to act like they don’t need help. Even if someone looks like everything is fine, but for some reason you think they need help – ask them if they need help. Again they may need help seeking help or they might have convinced themselves that if they can act fine everything is fine. By asking do you need help? You are shattering the illusion and helping them seek help. Don’t worry about them getting mad. It’s better to have a friend who is mad than a dead friend. Besides eventually they will know you were only asking because you care about them.
One final lesson, mental health issues can happen at any time. I mentioned earlier having mental health checkups before school begins. Every family should have a primary mental health provider like they have a primary care physician. This way at any point in time if a teen is feeling anxious or depressed, they can go to their family mental health provider and find out if they need treatment or not. This would help reduce the epidemic levels of teenagers who are coping with anxiety, depression or suicide. If we don’t change our attitudes about mental health, more teenagers are going to become severely depressed or anxious and the suicide rate will continue to increase.
I was researching this subject and the lessons Simone opened up and found a video by the Anna Freud Institute. It is called, “We all have mental health.” It is a short video directed at teenagers and middle school students. It discusses the issue in a very relaxed manner and provides teenagers with options for how they can talk about their own feelings. I encourage parents, teachers and anyone who deals with children to watch this video. You may want to watch it with your teen and begin a discussion about feelings. The link to the video is https://youtu.be/DxIDKZHW3-E.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 25 years experience working with children, teenagers, trauma victims including first responders. For more information about his work or private practice visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.