Naomi Osaka did more than stun the sports world when she pulled out of the French Open on Monday after she declined to participate in a post-match news conference, drawing a $15,000 fine.
The 23-year-old tennis champion’s bold decision to go public with her mental health struggle shone a light in a very dark place.
Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete on the planet, acknowledged in a social media post that she has been dealing with depression and anxiety since 2018 when she won her first Grand Slam, defeating Serena Williams amid a controversy that cheated Osaka of her greatest moment.
Whether going public at the tail end of Mental Health Awareness Month was planned or a spur-of-the-moment decision, the four-time Grand Slam champ’s bombshell blew a hole through the stigma that still exists around mental illness.
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka said in an Instagram post.
“Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety … So here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she said.
Osaka isn’t the only athlete in recent times that has talked openly about having a mental illness.
But usually, the admission comes after the athlete has been arrested or charged with criminal behavior.
Osaka framed her anxiety in a way that is likely to strike a chord with ordinary people struggling to overcome the anxiety or depression threatening to take over their lives.
Given the carnage we have lived through this past year with COVID-19 and gun violence, we could all use a little self-care.
But too many people try to push through the pain without treatment, and that’s a problem.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “more than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders.”
Additionally, a 2019 national poll conducted by that group found that mental health stigma is “still a major challenge in the workplace with more than one in three workers concerned about retaliation or being fired if they sought mental health care.”
While Osaka’s decision to decline interviews while competing in the French Open brought cheers and jeers, it opened the door to a wider conversation about where we are today regarding mental illness.
Frankly, it was disappointing that the initial reaction from the organizers of the four Grand Slam tournaments was punishment and disqualification.
After Osaka walked away from the tournament, the French tennis federation president showed a sliver of empathy.
“First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. … We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery,” Gilles Moretton said in a statement the AP reported.
It would have been more humane, not to mention compassionate, to allow Osaka to skip the press conferences and do what she needed to do to take care of her mental health.
Like other athletes who have defied league rules to make a point, Osaka will likely pay the price for her stance.
It will be worth it.
Her candor about a subject that is often treated as taboo could encourage others to seek treatment and possibly save lives.
Research has shown that “46% of people who die by suicide had a mental health condition,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
I hope that Osaka doesn’t stay away from the media for too long.
Her voice is as powerful as her serve.