Tag Archives: society

The mental health argument


This is probably not going to be a popular post.

Over at the Olympics, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the gymnastics team event invoking “mental issues” and everybody is applauding her “courage”. I am confused. Far be it from me to minimize the importance of self-care. I have struggled with mental issues just as much as the next person, and I do understand that, in her particular sport, lack of focus can lead to serious injuries. So it’s not that I don’t understand the gesture. Here is an amazing and hard-working young woman who experienced a low moment and did the rational thing (seeing as her performance was a liability to the team and a risk to her health). Good for her. What I grapple with is the attitude. The glorification.

I’m not familiar with all the details. I’m not throwing stones. Still, I cannot help but wonder: is the mental health mantra becoming too convenient an excuse? A way for professional athletes and other relatively privileged individuals – who have shot to fame and fortune through cut-throat competition and who at other times fully enjoy the perks that come with this lifestyle – to back out whenever things don’t quite go their way or when they feel they are not equal to the challenge? Do they not have a psychologist on the team? Did team USA not swap the Olympic Village for a nice hotel to ensure perfect conditions for their gymnasts? Is that not supposed to give them some kind of edge over the other poor saps?

After all, the Olympics are just as much about team spirit, self-sacrifice and representing one’s country as they are about individual success. My grandfather was a professional footballer who played for the Romanian national team in the 1930s. He played World Cup qualifiers and even the final tournament itself. During one of the really important matches, he was viciously fouled, but continued playing with a broken rib all the way to the end to help out his team. And he is not the only example. We look up to such people not just because they are skilled with the ball or can do elaborate tricks with their bodies. We look up to them for their strength of character as well. We are inspired by their dedication and grit, by their sense of responsibility and loyalty, by their capacity to handle adversity and to bounce back stronger when it really matters.

Or at least, we used to be.

Lately, there seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on among professional athletes. Naomi Osaka can’t handle one more Roland Garros press conference, but apparently has no problem with the psychological pressures of carrying the Olympic torch and having the eyes of the entire planet on her while she’s doing it. Serena Williams explains away her questionable behavior on court as a feminist stance. A couple of Romanian professional tennis players invoke injuries to avoid going to the Olympics altogether. Are we, as a society, giving people license to self-victimize too easily? And is the mental health argument becoming a little too self-serving?

Are we in the West too spoiled? Too stressed? Not resilient enough? Mentally depleted? Is it a question of individualism vs. collectivism?

What about those Olympians who have been through wars and famine and other types of deadly violence? What about those for whom the spartan conditions in the Olympic Village are an incredible improvement over what they have back home? What about Abebe Bikila, who won a marathon barefoot? How can these people keep it together? How come they are “mentally there”?

Simone Biles is an experienced gymnast with an impressive track record. The history of abuse by the team doctor is truly dreadful, but it did not impair her performance at the previous Olympics, when the scandal was at its peak. (Sadly, she is not the only athlete on an Olympic team to have suffered various types of abuse, especially in gymnastics…) She has been in gruelling competitions before, and she chose to participate in this one as well. She has been called the greatest of all times, a reputation she embraced and seemed to revel in. She is a role model. When she pulls out instead of leading her team to victory, is she simply being human, admitting her limitations, taking time to heal, and giving somebody else a shot at glory – or is she shirking her responsibilities and putting the onus on her less experienced teammates, who now have to step in unexpectedly and shoulder even more of the pressure? Is she a victim? Is she a hero? Both? Neither?

I guess only time will tell.

Meanwhile, former USSR gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, now 46 years old, is participating in her 8th Olympics. She kept training and competing professionally even as her son was battling leukaemia. And Larisa Iordache, a top Romanian gymnast, ended her beam routine in tears with a painful foot injury a couple of days ago, yet continues to bite the bullet, determined to recover, train and compete in Tokyo – both for herself and for the people back home. And this despite the recent death of her mother (one month before the Olympics!), the weighty expectations of 19 million conationals, and the daunting legacy every Romanian gymnast at the Olympic Games will forever be judged against: Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect 10’s in Montreal in 1976.

(You might also like: https://theconversation.com/the-infantilization-of-western-culture-99556)

P.S. I am certainly NOT suggesting that athletes have a sacred duty to entertain us or to fight for their country at the cost of their health or wellbeing. There are situations when quitting is perfectly justified – the smart option, the only option. What I have a problem with is the generalized celebrations around it. The Olympics is not an all-expenses-paid wellness trip. How we perceive things is culturally contingent. Perhaps so is our perception of what constitutes true greatness and how best to deal with difficult choices. But what we choose to celebrate now has an impact on social and cultural norms going forward. It models future behavior. I am simply questioning whether all this talk of mental health (in the context of superstars who are far from powerless and who, by their own admission, “freak out in a high-stress situation”) does more to destigmatize it, or to trivialize it. And whether giving ourselves permission to be fragile or easily hurt and offended actually makes us become more fragile and more easily offended. We already know from Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments that giving people permission to oppress will turn them into real oppressors…

#olympics #gymnastics #tennis #mentalhealth #society

Quote of the day


“The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal an consistent in itself.

What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. (…)

What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”

Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism, Penguin Random House, 2017, p.460

Quote of the day


“Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity. (…) It renders them accessible: setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity.”

Clifford Geertz – The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books Classics)

Thought of the day


“His conclusion was that things were not always what they appeared to be. The cub’s fear of the unknown was an inherited distrust, and it had now been strengthened by experience. Thenceforth, in the nature of things, he would possess an abiding distrust of appearances. He would have to learn the reality of a thing before he could put his faith into it.”

Jack London – White Fang, Part II, Chapter IV – The wall of the world.