In a world full of white coats, wear a leotard.
The news of Simone Biles’s recent withdrawal from the Tokyo Olympic Games shocked the world. What was surprising to many was the reason—not a physical injury, but a commitment to prioritizing her mental health. Biles later revealed that she had been experiencing a case of the “twisties.”
So, what are the twisties?
Twisties is a term that refers to a mental block or disconnect between our brain and body that can happen under pressure. In the gymnastics world, twisties can make gymnasts lose their sense of position in the air and lead to dangerous outcomes and injuries. It can happen to gymnasts of all skill levels, even the most decorated American gymnast of all time.
How many of us as physicians have experienced the twisties? How many of us have prioritized the health and wellbeing of our patients or others over ourselves? How many of us have neglected our own mental health for the sake of our careers?
Let’s be honest: Health care can feel a lot like the Olympics. High stakes. Pressure. Years of training. Physical and psychological demands. A culture that often does not embrace mental health wellness. A system that does not see mental health concerns as a reason to take a break, but rather a reason to “push through.” As physicians, we often feel the weight of the world, of a global pandemic, of our patient’s needs on our shoulders. Regardless of your level of medical training, none of us are exempt from the twisties.
Biles recently tweeted that “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Here is your reminder: You are more than your career. You are more than the white coat that is hanging (or will hang) in your closet. You are more than your CV. Your ability to care for others is intimately tied to how you care for yourself. Be kind to yourself and support your colleagues. It is OK to not be OK. Prioritizing your mental health isn’t quitting. Medicine will always be there. Take breaks when you need them. Neglecting your mental health isn’t proof of your commitment to medicine.
Biles’s decision to withdraw from the Olympics is a shift for sports, but it is also a shift for health care if we choose to view it as such. Simone Biles chose to model self-care. As physicians, we don’t need one of the largest world platforms to make a statement about our wellbeing. We can start in our medical schools, in our residency training programs, in our hospitals, and in our clinics. How many lives would we save as physicians and trainees if we modeled the actions of Simone Biles? How many lives would we save if we embraced mental health wellness on an individual and system level. Medicine needs more people like Simone Biles. Medicine needs more people willing to challenge a health care system that has ignored the mental health of physicians and trainees for far too long. Medicine needs more people who recognize mental health is both more precious and valuable than any Olympic medal.
Next time you reach for your white coat, remember to reach for your leotard too.
Tasia Isbell is a medical resident.
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