Naomi Osaka uplifts conversation about athletes’ mental health

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Naomi Osaka’s abrupt departure from the French Open has sparked a conversation about mental health in sports. After declining to speak with the press due to her anxiety from public speaking, Osaka was fined $15,000. Rather than continuing amid threats of more fines and even expulsion from the tournament, Osaka decided to withdraw. She later wrote on Instagram that she has been struggling with depression since 2018 and needed to take some time away from competing. Osaka has since withdrawn from the Berlin WTA 5000 tournament.

Osaka’s actions underscore the importance of taking athletes’ mental health seriously and have springboarded the conversation about mental health and sports, which has been growing for some time. In the past, athletes have not always discussed mental health publicly. Osaka’s openness represents an important shift in the sports world to tolerate these conversations.

Tournament officials had said that press engagement is essential to promoting the sport and that allowing Osaka to skip press conferences would be unfair to her competitors. Though she was criticized by tournament officials, fellow elite athletes have spoken out in support of her, highlighting how discussions about mental health have become more widely accepted. NBA star Stephen Curry and basketball Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie tweeted in support of Osaka. The Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving also expressed support on Instagram. Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, has been backed by some of her sponsors as well, including Nike and Mastercard, in her decision to step down from the French Open.

In recent years, athletes have been able to be more vocal about their mental health struggles. Michael Phelps spoke out about the psychological toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on him. In the past, he struggled with depression and substance abuse, and grappled with formulating his identity outside of swimming post-retirement. Tennis star Serena Williams has discussed her struggles with postpartum depression, and Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman has also discussed her battle with PTSD and spoken out about the importance of mental health support for athletes.

In “The Weight of Gold,” a documentary co-produced by Michael Phelps, Olympic athletes described their experiences dealing with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The International Olympic Committee estimates that as many as 45% of elite athletes may suffer from anxiety and depression.

Several factors contribute to issues with an athlete’s mental well-being. Elite athletes are under immense stress and financial pressure. They are often forced to set aside their families, friends and emotional well-being in pursuit of a goal they may miss out on by a few fractions of a second. Athletes also discussed stigmas such as appearing weak when discussing mental health and encountering barriers to accessing treatment.

Mental health struggles are not exclusive to professional athletes. According to the Sport Science Institute’s student-athlete mental wellness guide, student-athletes face unique pressures that can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders and other mental health problems due to intense daily schedules and imbalances with other areas of their lives. The severity of student-athletes’ mental health may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which severely impacted many plans and goals of young athletes.

Osaka’s openness about her mental health emphasizes the importance of giving athletes proper access to resources and showing compassion for those with mental health struggles so that athletes can compete in the sports they love without sacrificing their emotional well-being.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Crisis Support Services of Alameda County at 800-309-2131 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for 24/7 help. UC Berkeley students can also call the UC Berkeley Counseling and Psychological Services at 510-642-9494 for 24/7 access to a counselor.

Contact Rachel Alper at [email protected].