Shortly after news broke that Simone Biles had unexpectedly withdrawn from the women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympics because, as she later put it to reporters, she felt she wasn’t in “the right head space” to continue competing, reactions to the stunning decision poured forth.
While many people were supportive as they praised Biles, 24, for taking care of her well-being, others appeared to be far less understanding — reflecting what experts say is a long-standing, and problematic, view of mental health challenges, particularly among elite athletes and other public figures.
“Being an Olympian doesn’t mean that she gets to destroy her body and her mind for America,” said Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker and chief program officer of Mental Health America. “The words from comments that people make online are exponentially damaging. We as American people have the ability to make a choice about whether or not to post something hateful and unsupportive or encouraging and loving.”
Now, Nguyen emphasized, “is not the time to be a jerk.”
“We all know this feeling when we’re in a tough spot and someone beats you down even further, it does not make you feel encouraged,” she said. “It just makes you feel more broken and smaller.”
Biles’s very public decision offers an opportunity to learn about the right and wrong ways to support someone — whether they’re an Olympian or not — who is going through a difficult time mentally or emotionally. Here are some do’s and don’ts from mental health experts.
Do: Offer a safe space to talk and listen
“The first step is providing the space and providing the invitation for the person to explore what’s going on,” said Mark Aoyagi, co-director of sports and performance psychology at the University of Denver.
If the person takes you up on your invitation, ask them how they are doing. You don’t have to shy away from potentially sensitive subjects, Aoyagi said: “A lot of times nobody else in their life has ever invited that conversation, and so sometimes it’s just opening that door for them to have a trusted person that they can communicate with about that.”
It’s also important to figure out where a person is in their decision-making process about how to handle their mental health issue, Nguyen said, which can then guide how you provide support. If, for instance, a person is still trying to make sense of what their next step is, you may be able to help them think it through.
But above all, experts said, you need to prioritize listening. “When we’re in moments of suffering, what we want is empathy and listening,” Nguyen said. “We all know what it feels like to talk to somebody in that moment of crisis and get advice or see that someone is not listening because they’re already crafting in their minds what they’re going to do next.”
Don’t: Be pushy about talking or dispensing advice
Many people have a tendency to want to immediately fix what’s wrong. Fight that urge, experts said.
“The more you’re able to listen and the less providing advice — unless you’re explicitly asked to provide advice — the better,” said Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association.” You want to have the opportunity for the person to tell you what’s going on in the most nonjudgmental way possible.”
If the person asks you for space, respect their wishes, said Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia. Even though you may be reaching out with good intent to offer support, Boateng said, “if they’re not asking for that, that’s not helpful.”
Do: Validate and affirm decisions
When someone is going through a tough time, it helps to know that others understand and accept their struggle. Acknowledge and validate their feelings, experts said, and if they have made a decision about their next move — to take a step back from a challenging situation, for example — you should affirm that choice.
“Sometimes people feel alone in making strong decisions,” Boateng said. To counter that, she suggested reinforcing that you’re going to be there for that person to listen and support them.
If someone has made up their mind, try to avoid asking questions such as “Are you sure?” Nguyen said, which can put people in a position of defensiveness.
Instead of second-guessing someone’s decision, she and other experts recommended shifting your focus to how you can help the person navigate next steps.
Do: Ask how you can support them
Keep in mind that people’s needs are different. While one person may want reassurance and affirmation that they made the right decision, that approach may not be helpful for someone else, Boateng said.
It’s important to ask someone how you can be most helpful to them, experts said, which will then help you know the right things to say and do. Try to be positive without “bypassing or overlooking the pain and suffering” someone is experiencing, Boateng said.
Don’t: Engage in toxic positivity
Oftentimes not knowing what to say can turn into being overly positive, which may do more harm than good. “Toxic positivity,” or the tendency to cope with a bad situation by putting a positive spin on it and ignoring the negative, can be “disguised as genuine support,” Boateng said. “They’re thinking they’re saying the best thing.”
Toxic positivity can sound like phrases such as “push through,” “everything is going to be fine” or “there’s always next time.”
“You almost assuredly have not walked in that person’s shoes and experienced the things that that person has, so trying to tell the person, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay,’ while well-meaning, it often feels devaluing of what the person’s struggle is,” Bufka said.
Additionally, toxic positivity may encourage a person to stay in a situation that they’ve already determined isn’t healthy for them, Nguyen said. “You’re using positive words, but you’re still pushing someone to do something they don’t want to do.”
Do: Respect privacy
You may be asked by others why someone is taking time to care for their mental health. Be sure to ask that person how much information about their situation they would feel comfortable with you sharing, Bufka said. If you don’t have permission, “it’s best to assume you shouldn’t be sharing anything private about other people’s lives,” Nguyen noted.
But if you are asked, it’s important to be honest without disclosing information, Bufka said. Some possible responses include, “It was a very personal/ difficult decision/ situation,” or “They could use support right now,” she said.
Do: Offer to help
You can help someone establish perspective and encourage them to give themselves permission to make a change, Aoyagi said.
And similar to how you would support someone who is grieving, experts recommend offering help beyond emotional support. Ask if you can provide meals or run errands, or simply be a physical presence in the person’s life by scheduling walks or going over to spend time with them.
If someone decides they want professional support, Bufka recommended helping them get them connected.
Don’t: Take on more than you can handle yourself
“We don’t have to be perfect in our answers,” Boateng said. “Just doing your best sometimes may not be the complete support that they need. That’s why it really takes a community, not just one person.”
As you’re providing support, it’s important to realize your own limits and know when it might be time to involve a mental health professional, Bufka said.
A family member or friend, she said, should “be a willing companion on the journey as opposed to the person leading the journey.”