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Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles bring fresh voices to the fight against stigma of mental illness

The two Olympians have the right stuff to raise awareness about mental illness. It can happen to anyone.

Top athletes Naomi Osaka (left) and Simone Biles have each talked publicly about their mental health. | Getty Images
Top athletes Naomi Osaka (left) and Simone Biles have each talked publicly about their mental health.
Getty Images

The praise heaped on Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles — considered the greatest gymnast ever — for stepping away from competition to deal with mental health issues should give us hope.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re finally beginning to crack the stigma attached to mental illness.

It’s been a long time coming.

In 2008, Congress honored author Bebe Moore Campbell by designating July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

Campbell, an author, journalist and mental health advocate, struggled to support her daughter, who battled mental illness. Campbell died of brain cancer in 2006.

“While everyone — all colors — everyone is affected by stigma — no one wants to say ‘I’m not in control of my mind.’ No one wants to say, ‘The person I love is not in control of [their] mind. But people of color really don’t want to say it because we already feel stigmatized by virtue of skin color or eye shape or accent, and we don’t want any more reasons for anyone to say, ‘You’re not good enough.’”

Osaka and Biles do not have that worry.

Osaka, 23, the highest-paid female athlete, was already a four-time Grand Slam champion when she bowed out of the French Open in June, citing mental health issues.

And Biles, 24, the country’s most decorated gymnast, won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Olympics, earning millions in endorsements.

Her decision to drop out of the team all-around at the Tokyo games after a flawed vault and later to back out of the individual all-around competition shocked the world.

Both women pointed to mental health concerns as the culprit.

For Biles, it was the “twisties” — a phenomenon that can cause gymnasts to lose their sense of space, leaving them unable to spin in mid-air — that put her on the sidelines.

And for Osaka, it was anxiety and depression that she said began at the 2018 U.S. Open after she beat tennis legend Serena Williams in a controversial match. Last month, after officials threatened to expel Osaka for declining to participate in news conferences, she decided to withdraw.

These are watershed moments.

Athletes are admired for their seemingly superhuman strengths. The truth is, mental illness can bring even a superhero to their knees.

But while I applaud Biles and Osaka for their bravery, there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness in the African American community.

Mental health issues are often viewed as a “weakness,” and only one in three African Americans who struggle with mental health issues receive appropriate treatment, Ruth White, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, said in an article posted on the school’s website.

“As a country, we need to make meaningful policy changes that will increase mental health care for people of color so fewer African Americans will go without the treatment they need,” White said.

According to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness, hopelessness, and feeling like everything is an effort. Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security.”

Unfortunately, in many families, the recurring bouts of anxiety and depression some family members suffer are treated as a normal part of life. We were expected to get over it.

I hope Biles and Osaka continue the conversation.

But we also need policy changes that ensure people won’t be penalized for getting treatment.

For instance, people suffering from depression or anxiety shouldn’t have to worry that a decision to seek treatment will come back to haunt them in the form of lost job opportunities and higher insurance premiums.

These young women have shown the world that it is cool to protect our minds just like we protect our bodies.