Lou's Views

Simone Biles in white sweatshirt

The Tokyo Olympics are now a memory and from a media standpoint, feel-good stories and struggles aplenty stuck out. It was, as ABC’s Wide World of Sports tagline once trumpeted, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” (Anyone miss the way ABC used to cover the Olympics back in the day? I sho’ ‘nuf do.) 

As any sports journalist will tell you, the Olympic Games are all about a movement, while the Olympics themselves are composed of many moments. My personal favorite starred Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim. These longtime friends and competitors decided to share the men’s high jump gold medal after they both missed an Olympic record height of 2.39 meters. Sportsmanship is timeless and this was a shining new example of the virtue made visible. 

But with so many wonderful moments such as this, the potential for a movement also emerged. And I’m waiting to see how reporters and journalists will cover it. That is: the link between mental health and the immense pressure to perform everyday. Gymnast supreme Simone Biles alerted us to this when she withdrew from her women’s gymnastics competitions. And of course the media—as it should—celebrated her comeback to win a bronze medal in the balance beam event. That’s warm-and-fuzzy, heart-of-a-champion news. 

But what about the moments Simone felt at her worst? While so often the relationship between athletic competition and reality is metaphorical, Biles’ breakdown is the stuff of life for us all. Mental health is serious business. Thus it remains to be seen whether the media will take this part of the story—already getting buried in a flush of other headlines—as just another timely riff or a dowser rod to point at a much larger issue.

An awakening and a reckoning

It’s not often I return to an issue in successive columns. But society as a whole and the media in particular haven’t done an especially great job in coming to grips with mental health as a last remaining area of vagueness and tremendous inequality.

Don’t blame the press, though. At present, there’s a lack of mass coalescence around the issue. The cameras gather and reporters type away in the presence of crowded protests or successive blasts from Twitter influencers. It explains the well-deserved attention #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo gained in their seminal moments—opportune, made-for-deadline action that met societal awakening head on.

(How sad, meanwhile, that Time’s Up leader Roberta Kaplan has just resigned in disgrace for allegedly advising New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who even as I type this sentence has announced that he will resign. In disgrace as well.)   

But you can’t film a gray mental health episode and expect the same visceral response as when a governor announces to a rapt crowd that he’s leaving office over allegations of multiple, horrible sexual transgressions. Or when a white Nazi cop kneels on a black man’s neck long enough to play “Hey Jude” and “Blitzkreig Bop” back to back.  

Still, in the trials of Biles and before that fellow Olympian Naomi Osaka at the French Open, something split open in terms of a broader reckoning vis-a-vis the struggles those with depression, anxiety, bipolar condition and more endure everyday. As a reporter, I’ve connected far more tenuous dots in the name of a page one story. I’ll never forget the editor whose daughter lost her mittens at school, then heard a friend’s kid had done the same, and insisted we had stumbled on a wintertime “trend.”

The thing about the mental health story is this: Mass protests are pretty hard to organize when so many dogged by the Noonday Demon suffer in silence. Having flailed in very public ways, Biles and Osaka stirred stagnant waters. We know professional athletes aren’t immune to mental pain. In every way it resembles the anguish we face when a boss foists deadline after deadline on us; or our work has lost meaning; or the constant struggle to come out on top yields utter exhaustion. 

He’s not a psychiatrist, but he plays one on Twitter

We see the worst in people when idiots like Texas Asst. Attorney General Aaron Reitz called Biles “selfish,” “childish” and a “national embarrassment.” Because obviously, Reitz is a self-styled Texan macho man who has never faced moments of mental disquietude or seen it in family members—not when he can build a semi truck with his bare hands and teeth, the same way Biles should do.   

Good for The Washington Post for holding Reitz and his insect-like emotional intelligence up for public witness. Should you wish to register your displeasure, Reitz’ office number is (512) 463-2100. And why not? He only recanted because he got caught. An idiot and a coward. Such a Texas two-step.

But—and here is the Grand Wazoo Round Issue the media faces every day—the news and what passes for it move at breakneck speed and volume. The noise floor screams as loudly as the U.N.’s new report on climate change perils, or the raging of the Delta variant in red states, or the collapse of a condominium tower by the Atlantic. Countless other events swirl around us that, on a scale of one to ten, register a ten in importance. 

Tokyo is already so much spent fireworks and fodder for the history books. Will a larger story about mental health awareness emerge from it? That depends. One of my many mentors, the great Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, said we should not look for stories that “break,” but “trickle, seep and ooze.” Mental health and the forces that compromise it–as well as the Neanderthal attitudes that contend its compromise equals a sign of weakness–could be the story of the decade. Really. 

Moment? Movement? Or time to move towards media moments?

More than ever, workplace initiatives on DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) are making the news. It is my contention, however, that mental health issues remain on the fringe—discussed but without action taken. You’d never make fun of a person’s race, gender or visible disability in the workplace. But who gets fired for calling someone “crazy,” “schizo” or “bipolar”? No one. That’s who. 

My personal award of $1,000 is still available to the first HR person who steps forward and says with a straight face, and proof in hand, “Yeah, I actually kept that job application when the person disclosed they had a mental disability.” 

But sadly, even that HR person is not immune. Nor the doctors and nurses pushed to the brink of genuine madness and suicide by the ravages of COVID-19 on our heath care system. My colleagues have done a great job following this story; I’ve read wonderful pieces in the Post and elsewhere. But I’ve yet to see one that interviews, I don’t know … a hospital chaplain? You know: the employee who actually gets as close to the dying as anyone else; deals with screaming family members who thought COVID was a hoax; and comes home with the weight of a wrecking ball on their shoulders. 

Are we in a moment of mental health awareness? Or a movement? Surely, the media cannot cover what it does not witness outside the newsroom. But great reporters scratch for the “trickle, seep and ooze” below the surface. And who knows? The first reporters to dig down and report what hasn’t been brought to light before it could spawn a movement. Witness New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who in 2017 uncovered the sexual criminality of Harvey Weinstein. He was one man. But in the chronicle of his misdeeds, people felt the resonance deeply and as the kiddos like to say, the stories went viral. And #MeToo was born. 

The mental health pandemic, if we can dare call it that, may beg for just such a close-up in the media.

Regardless, the media spotlight that shone at the French Open and at the Olympics need not be extinguished like just another celebratory torch. Right now, more than ever, we need some heat and brilliance.  

If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed take a backseat to the need to eliminate mental health prejudice. Email lou@qwoted.com or connect on LinkedIn.