Normalizing mental health: ‘I know there’s this whole, ‘Well, pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, but it’s very old school’

Part 1 of our series touches on Simone Biles, one of her supporters near Houston

Simone Biles, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) (Ashley Landis, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The smile on full display from Simone Biles said it all: The U.S. superstar stuck the landing on her balance beam routine, her face lit up, and all at once, she embodied pure joy, a seventh Olympic medal, and likely some relief, having the weight of the world off her back, at least for a few minutes.

In a story that’s been grabbing headlines and attention throughout the Olympic Games, Biles withdrew from the team gymnastics competition following a botched vault, and then she pulled from the other remaining individual events, citing a case of the “twisties,” a mental block in which an athlete loses her spatial awareness.

Speaking with NBC following her bronze medal performance, Biles provided a timeline on when she started struggling mentally, and spoke of some of the conversations that had been happening behind closed doors in Tokyo. “It’s not how I wanted (my time at the Games) to go, but I think we’ve opened bigger doors and bigger conversations,” Biles said.

“You have to put your mental health first,” Biles continued on to say. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the biggest stage. That’s more important than any medal you could win.”

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles poses with her bronze medal for the artistic gymnastics women's balance beam apparatus at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The rise of mental health discussions

Mental health conversations have been popping up left and right, especially in recent days, weeks, months and even years. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, we actually asked you, our readers and viewers, about your own mental health, and how you were coping.

And then when Biles’ story broke -- which drew comparisons to gymnast Kerri Strug’s physical health and how she handled her own circumstances in the 1996 Games, and whether or not she truly should have tackled that second vault on an injured ankle -- it seemed to have the world buzzing about these ideas of mental toughness, vulnerability and overall well-being.

Given all of the above (our questions to our readers, and then the Biles events), we thought now would be the right time to continue this conversation.

So, speaking of that COVID-19-related mental health survey, our news team went on to conduct interviews with three of you who filled out the form, asking questions like: What’s your take on Biles’ situation? What prompted you to complete our survey in the first place -- and how did you feel then, vs. today? -- and what helps you get out of bed in the mornings?

Nothing was left off the table.

Here’s a deeper look into some of the people who were willing to chat, and use their voices to spark change.

Meet Danielle

Danielle Gomez, who lives in Spring, Texas, just outside of Houston, said her happiness levels actually rose during the pandemic, in some ways.

Danielle Gomez. (Danielle Gomez)

“I get very anxious anyway, so having to stay home, having my kids home, having my husband home -- that helped kind of quell some of the things that drive my anxiety,” she said.

Gomez struggles with wanting to make the right decisions for everyone, she said, as she acknowledged that it can be difficult, trying to balance the idea of keeping her loved ones as safe as possible, but not wanting to live in isolation or fear. The whole COVID ordeal made her feel anxious in general.

After all, Gomez has an immunocompromised mother who is a breast cancer survivor. And Gomez’s youngest child, a 9-year-old daughter, isn’t able to get the COVID vaccine just yet due to her age, so Gomez has struggled with decisions in that regard, as well: Who should the family be around? In what capacity? Is it truly safe?

Gomez said she doesn’t want anyone in her family to be that person who brings COVID home or passes it on, especially to grandma. And now, her daughter will have to return to school in person soon, with the Delta variant gaining traction and still no timeline as to when children might be able to receive their shots.

These are the sorts of things Gomez still worries about.

“It’s like, you pick one little thing and then it just kind of keeps spiraling -- that’s my perpetual state, basically,” she said.

Reaching out for help

Gomez also used the pandemic as an opportunity to return to school herself, so not only is she a stay-at-home mom, but she’s working toward her own degree.

There’s a lot on her plate at the moment. Gomez checks in with herself mentally probably every day, she estimated, adding that, “I have to.”

She has a therapist she talks to, as well.

“I have absolutely reached out and had help. I have that as a resource, and through therapy, I’ve learned how to kind of redirect my thoughts,” Gomez told us. “If I find myself deviating too much and getting into some darker things, then I can catch myself and just kind of bring it back. It’s like retraining my thought process. It’s not easy all the time, and it’s not going to work every time. But just the mere (thought, of like), ‘Hey, you know, you’re veering off track here, let’s get back’ (can be helpful). … That’s an everyday thing.”

Gomez checks in with her relatives, too, probably more often than they’d like, she said with a laugh. But she wants them to know she’s ever-present, regardless of whether they love it or hate it. Gomez aims to normalize conversations about mental health and model this behavior for her children.

“My Hispanic background, we don’t talk about (things like) that, period. … My mom flips when I bring up, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I had a really crappy day.’ (She’ll say), ‘Why? You have so much to be thankful for.’ And yeah, I know I do, but it doesn’t put aside the fact that, you know, something might have happened that triggered me today, and it’s left me feeling really crappy,” Gomez said. “It’s not easy for people. I know there’s this whole, ‘Well, pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, but it’s very old school. And I get it. I understand. But it still doesn’t take away from feeling how you feel. Your feelings are valid. You should be able to share that. You should be able to talk about it.”

Gomez said she has struggled in the past, to get out of bed in the mornings. There was a time when she didn’t want to keep going. But her kids served as that light at the end of the tunnel. Now she looks at them as motivation, like she’s here to be their mom.

Her parents, by the way, were incredible, growing up. The sentiment above wasn’t intended as a knock on her mom. Gomez said her mother is just the ultimate optimist, and what works for her, doesn’t work for Gomez.

“Finding something that works is key,” Gomez said.

Simone, strength and seasons of life

And as for Biles, Gomez said she’s incredibly proud of her.

“It takes someone knowing themselves -- knowing who they are, to come out and say, ‘I’m not OK. I’m going to back away and handle my stuff.’ It takes a huge person to be able to do that,” Gomez said. “And someone on her level, one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, using her platform, it’s incredible. It’s normalizing it, and showing that even Olympians struggle. It’s everybody. We all have our moments, and it’s OK.”

When Gomez feels particularly low, she reaches out to others for support. She first started working with a therapist during a rather chaotic time in her life: She suffered a miscarriage, her father was diagnosed with cancer, and then her mom received a cancer diagnosis about six months later. Then Gomez got pregnant again, and it just felt chaotic and stressful.

“Trying to wrap my head around it all made me want to see someone,” she said. “(Someone) who’s not a part of this. I didn’t want to take away from what (anyone else) was feeling, or add to it. … That’s what got me in the door. Seeing someone who doesn’t judge ... it was so helpful. It (gave) me the tools I needed to navigate that season of my life.”

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