When hackers tried to use Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’s use of prescription medication to downplay her athletic abilities, Biles flipped the script and used the leak to send a personal message about stigma and mental health.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist was the victim of a cyber attack on Tuesday after a Russian cyber espionage group known as Fancy Bear hacked the World Anti-Doping Association database and released private medical records to the public, WADA confirmed in an official statement.
According to NBC News, the records showed Biles tested positive for “methylphenidate,” more commonly known as Ritalin, in August. She disclosed to the governing body that she was taking the medication for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which she’s had since she was a child, and was approved under WADA’s therapeutic use exemptions.
“Please know, I believe in clean sport, have always followed the rules, and will continue to do so as fair play is critical to sport and is very import to me,” Biles tweeted.
Biles didn’t stop there. She also rebuked the idea that she should be shamed for taking medication in the first place.
Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of nothing that I'm afraid to let people know.— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) September 13, 2016
Hackers attempted to discredit Biles’s gravity-defying performances as the product of doping and not that of a dedicated gymnast who turned her raw talent into unparalleled skills. But in attempting to “bust” Biles for doping, hackers also tapped into a very present stigma surrounding mental health that many people have been fighting against.
Destigmatizing mental health care is necessary — especially for people of color
“Stigma is one of the most challenging aspects of living with a mental health condition,” Laura Greenstein wrote for the National Alliance on Mental Illness last year. “It causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control and prevents many from seeking the help they need and speaking out.”
Last September, blogger Erin Jones, who is on the autism spectrum and deals with anxiety and depression, posted a selfie with a caption about taking medication for her mental health. The selfie went viral, and sparked the hashtag campaign #MedicatedAndMighty.
“I have tried living this life without prescription help,” Jones wrote on Facebook. “It seems to have me on top of the world one minute and rocking in the corner the next. There is no consistency. I’m done with that.”
She added: “Sometimes, folks, we just need help.” But for people of color like Biles, cultural and institutional barriers can get in the way.
According to NAMI, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to be dealing with mental health issues. Among the most common problems are depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nonetheless, Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Louisville, pointed out at Psychology Today that many African Americans don’t seek treatment because they feel embarrassed. It’s also not uncommon for black churchgoers to seek refuge in the church over going to a mental health professional.
But racist stereotypes can also compromise care. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Princeton sociology graduate student Heather Kugelmass tried to examine how race played a role in mental health care. And what she found is that implicit racial bias may deter many black therapy seekers from even getting their foot in the door.
For the study, a white patient and a black patient left separate voicemails for 320 New York City therapists. Kugelmass found that 30 percent of white middle-class clients were offered appointments from therapists, compared with 13 percent of black middle-class men and 21 percent of middle-class black women.
"Ultimately, the goal is high-quality care for all, but people need access at multiple stages in the process in order to get to that point," Kugelmass said of her study. "There's no quality of care for people who can't get through a therapist's door."
It takes an act of courage to take the taboo out of mental health, let alone be transparent about how one manages it. By embracing her status instead of shying away from it, Biles may have helped empower many others to do the same.