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The common thread between all of Tuesday’s top stories was mental health. It was front and center in Simone Biles’ shocking decision to withdraw from her team’s Olympic competition. It was highlighted by the police officers who testified about lingering wounds from the January 6 attack. And it was invoked by CDC director Rochelle Walensky as she reignited the so-called “mask wars.”
“This weighs heavily on me,” Walensky said as she rolled out revised recommendations for masking. “I know that at 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they’re frustrated,” she said. “We have mental health challenges in this country.” We sure do…
‘Mental health is health, period’
This is tricky terrain for the news media just as it is for the individuals involved. There are stigmas associated with mental health talk. But we’re seeing that change, day by day, story by story. On Monday for instance, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed concern about a rash of recent suicides among troops and said “mental health is health, period. And we have to approach it with the same energy that we apply to other – any other health issue, with compassion and professionalism and resources. And so if you’re hurting, there are resources available.”
That brings me to Tuesday and the breaking news from Tokyo…
Athletes and celebrities and brands rushed to support Biles, who broke down in tears as she explained her decision. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said, adding, “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
At least she is not alone – and that’s a laudable change. “When I was competing, there were really no resources and mental health wasn’t really a discussion,” Aly Raisman told Christiane Amanpour later in the day. “Part of being great is recognizing when you can’t be great. Biles has shown the world what true strength looks like,” USA Today columnist Suzette Hackney wrote.
Of course, contrarians like Piers Morgan had predictable things to say about Biles. Morgan tweeted: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time.” Darren Rovell responded: “I’d rather have my daughter and sons learn that even the greatest, on the biggest of stages, have mental health challenges, than have them emulate perfection.”
“What you’re seeing is a younger generation setting boundaries around what mental health is and what they owe an audience,” Tony Reali said on ESPN, specifically about Biles. Reali has been candid about having generalized anxiety disorder. “Mental health is simply health,” he tweeted after “Around the Horn.” He said mental health does not discriminate but “the way we talk about it does.” Hopefully we’re seeing that change in real time, on days like today.
‘January 6 still isn’t over for me’
“More than six months later, January 6 still isn’t over for me,” Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said during the House select committee hearing on Tuesday, as he described his need for counseling therapy “for the persistent emotional trauma of that day.”
Dunn used his nationally televised platform for good, telling fellow officers, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling. What we went through that day was traumatic.”
Right on cue, right-wing voices like Tucker Carlson and Jesse Kelly mocked Dunn and other men who shared their emotions at the hearing, with special scorn reserved for Adam Schiff and Adam Kinzinger. But the backlash sparked its own immediate pushback, too…
For the record
– I thought Vice’s Alexis Johnson said it best on Tuesday night: “The fact that anybody can dare criticize anyone’s mental health status during this hellish pandemic is astounding to me.” (Twitter)
– CNBC offered up this: “How can you tell if you need to take a break to care for your mental health and what does that look like? Here’s what you need to know…” (CNBC)
– “There’s an entire HBO documentary specifically about the toll that being an Olympian takes on mental health,” NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out, recommending last year’s film “The Weight of Gold” featuring Michael Phelps… (Twitter)
– Phelps, Naomi Osaka and now Biles: This “could mark a new era of mental health awareness among athletes…” (TIME)