Naomi Osaka’s disclosure about mental health challenges could truly be a game-changer
The scrutiny that comes with being a world-class, world-famous athlete is intense. Life can be too much for anyone, regardless of their stature or fame. That’s why just having the courage to admit it is so important.
“Mental health break.” It’s a term that’s grown increasingly common in recent years, used to describe the need for some emotional and psychological self-care. But rest assured, it’s not a term our parents or grandparents’ generations grew up with, and not something they fully understand even now.
So when one of the world’s top female tennis players, Naomi Osaka, announced that she was pulling out of a Grand Slam tennis tournament, citing her anxiety and depression, it’s no surprise reactions were mixed.
Last week, Osaka angered some in tennis for announcing she wouldn’t participate in the mandatory press conferences for the tournament, citing her mental health. The Grand Slam event heads fined her $15,000, and warned her she could be disqualified if she continued to skip out on the gaggles.
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The Twitter handle for the French Open mocked Osaka’s admission, posting and then deleting a tweet with pictures of other tennis players engaging with the media along with the caption, “They understood the assignment.”
Then, a few days later, she dropped out completely, perhaps beating the tournament to the punch.
To which professional misogynist Piers Morgan typically responded, “Unfortunately, Ms. Osaka is also an arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions.” He compared her to Meghan Markle, a woman whose severe depression and suicidal thoughts he’s similarly dismissed, accusing her of exploiting mental health.
Other critics were far less hostile, but still somewhat dismissive.
“Why should she be treated any differently to the other players,” former top tennis player Mats Wilander asked. “We are all struggling with mental issues these days during the pandemic, but Naomi, I think you need to reconsider or, I would say, don’t play in the tournament until you are ready to face the job.”
And longtime New York Times tennis writer, Christopher Clarey, justified the need for press interviews by opining, “Media coverage, much of it favorable, has helped Osaka become the world’s best paid female athlete. She earned more than $55 million in the last year, nearly all of it from sponsorship deals.” He continued, “facing unwelcome questions, even in defeat, does not seem like too much to ask.”
Of course, money doesn’t guarantee happiness or mental sanity. Depression doesn’t discriminate based on fame, wealth or trophies. And the kind of mental health anguish one person might be going through isn’t usually the kind “we are all struggling with.” Asking for actual treatment isn’t asking for “special” treatment.
Finally, there’s nothing “spoiled” about wanting to get help for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues.
But while these gentlemen, all of a certain generation, may be comfortable picking Osaka apart to varying degrees for her decision, Naomi is 23 — she’s grown up in a very different time than her elders, a time when mental health is taken much more seriously.
Fortunately, there was, in addition to her critics, an outpouring of support from other athletes like Serena Williams, NBA star Stephen Curry and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love.
Her sponsors, including Nike, likewise seem hip to the modern approach to mental health, offering their support. Mastercard said in a statement, “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritize personal health and well-being.”
Osaka has been upfront about her anxiety issues. She first noticed a change after her controversial win over Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open, after which she was booed by fans for what Williams claimed were unfair rulings. That year she told reporters, “Yesterday I just woke up and I was really depressed but I don’t know why.” After calling herself “just an OK player,” she confessed, “I’m so sad right now.” It’s a heartbreaking clip to go rewatch now.
The scrutiny that comes with being a world-class, world-famous athlete is intense. But, speaking from personal experience as someone who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, life can be too much for anyone, regardless of their stature or fame. That’s why just having the courage to admit it is so important.
A media friend of mine, Yashar Ali, a well-known journalist to many on Twitter, recently admitted he has not been feeling well. “I’m just looking for support. I’m sorry I haven’t been putting out all the stuff you normally expect, please stick with me. Right now, I feel like I’m barely hanging on,” he tweeted.
ESPN host Stephen A. Smith, in his discussion of Osaka’s decision, also admitted he’s suffered with depression following his mother’s death and sought treatment.
“Acknowledging what my issue was, and going to seek help, helped me to be able to come on national television and be able to articulate positions like this,” he told his TV audience.
You can’t overstate how impactful these admissions are. Osaka, (who is Japanese), Ali, (who is Iranian American), and Smith, (who is African American), are especially helping to reach communities of color in which there are significant existing barriers to mental health help. Kudos to them for sharing.
Osaka’s brave admission is a potential game-changer, and represents a bigger generational shift in the way we approach mental health. It’s about time.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN. Follow her on Twitter @secupp