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Alison Rowat: Simone Biles is a brave heart in the fight for good mental health

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SHE is four feet and loose change and as light as a sprite, but Simone Biles makes for a terrifying sight as she readies to do her thing. The most successful gymnast of all time has executed moves with the human body that the brain says ought not to be possible but the heart cheers on. Only the very brave do not watch through their fingers as this young woman from Columbus, Ohio, corkscrews into the record books again.

Biles was fearless again this week at the Olympics in Tokyo, this time for pulling out of the gymnastics team final for the sake of her mental health. Explaining her decision, the winner of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals said: “We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

Though she is scheduled to compete in other finals, there is a chance that her 2021 Olympics is over. An event desperately in need of star power just became a little duller.

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Biles, 24, follows tennis player Naomi Osaka in withdrawing from competition for mental health reasons. Osaka, 23, pulled out of the French Open in May, later revealing that she had suffered bouts of depression in recent years.

Osaka’s decision divided opinion between those who were sympathetic and others less so. The latter were led by Piers Morgan. That well-known world class athlete, whose most recent contribution to sporting history consisted of sprinting out of a television studio after the weatherman had a go at him, was quick to condemn Osaka as an “arrogant spoiled brat”. Later, he told British tennis player Emma Raducanu to “toughen up” after she suffered breathing problems and quit a match at Wimbledon.

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READ MORE: Time to bust gymnastics myths

No surprise, then, that Morgan was leading the charge yesterday against Biles, writing: “Sorry if it offends all the howling Twitter snowflake virtue-signallers, but I don’t think it’s remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit.”

Let us not linger on the nauseating idea of some privileged old blow-hard telling Biles, one of the survivors of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, to get a grip.

Nor should we dwell for too long on how ridiculous it is for Morgan, a man unburdened by any study of mental health, to pronounce on who is well and who is not.

Putting all that to one side, there may still be some who will wonder if he has a point. According to Morgan, young people are being encouraged to think that “normal life stuff”, such as grief or anxiety, is mental illness. “Kids need to be more mentally strong and resilient,” he says. That way, he told The Sun, more time and money can go to helping people with “genuine mental illness”.

We know he is not alone in this kind of thinking because it surfaces so often. It makes the news when a famous person is involved, a Harry or a Meghan or an Amy (Winehouse), whose struggle with addiction has been set out in another documentary, Reclaiming Amy, shown recently on the BBC (and still available on iPlayer).

Yet many will have enough experience of mental illness, either personally, or through their family, friends, and colleagues, to know that it still takes a brave soul to speak out. Hang on, though, are we not now living in the kind of grown-up times when good mental health is seen as just as important as physical health, and when people who need help can get it far more easily?

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The younger royals have made mental health a mainstream subject, bookshops are full of survivor memoirs, the subject is covered in any number of documentaries, and there are television dramas and films galore. It is not like the bad old days when a newspaper could call a sportsman “bonkers” on the front page.

READ MORE: Biles withdraws from final

All that sympathy and awareness out there. How civilised, how caring and enlightened, we have become.

If only that was always true. Even today, to ask for help brings the risk of being told, like many before you, to pull yourself together, or that there are plenty worse off than you. What is that scalpel-sharp line from Riff-Raff, when someone asks building worker Stevie (played by Robert Carlyle) if he ever gets depressed? “No,” he says. “Depressions are for the middle classes. The rest of us have got an early start in the morning.”

If they are not being ignored or their problems diminished, people with mental health problems are in danger of being cloaked in tragedy, as though it was somehow inevitable that they should suffer. The rock and roll hall of fame is filled with such figures, Amy Winehouse included. As the film made by her family and friends made clear, addiction is far more complicated, and has so many more roots, than most of us can imagine. Yet still, for the most part, alcoholism and drug addiction are not seen as the illnesses they are, their victims as deserving of as much help and respect as anyone who is sick.

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Exceptions aside, society is generally more enlightened about mental health than it once was. Yet being accepting of it is not the same as giving services the funding they need. There is a dreadful disconnect between urging people to seek help and the reality they soon discover.

Take, as one example, child and adolescent mental health services in Scotland. Essential if problems are to be dealt with early and not persist into adulthood. Under Scottish Government targets, 90% of this group should start treatment within 18 weeks of referral to services.

But as a report last December by Public Health Scotland found, just 60.6% were seen within the target time, compared to 61.7% for the previous quarter and 64.5% for the quarter ending September 2019. The situation is getting worse, and that is before the effects of the pandemic start to filter through.

As for adult access to counselling, good luck even getting to see your GP face to face. Unless you have savings to pay for private therapy, or a decent employer who can help, you are in for a long wait.

While there is a danger in raising expectations that cannot be met, it is surely right that we continue to be open about mental health, just like Simone Biles. Open and open-minded. Just as there are no deserving and undeserving poor, there are no deserving and undeserving people with mental health problems, no matter what certain former breakfast show presenters believe.

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