Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam tennis tournament champion, put mental health in the news when she withdrew from the French Open on May 31. The world’s highest-paid female athlete and a magnetic star on the professional tennis circuit cited mental health concerns for her decision to “take some time” away from the sport.
“Anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” Osaka wrote. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
Osaka added that she has suffered bouts of depression since her victory over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open in 2018.
In the 130-year existence of the French Open, the premier clay court tennis championship tournament in the world and the second of the four annual Grand Slam tournaments, a star player has never walked away from competing because of mental health reasons.
Tour officials consider news conferences an important part of promoting the sport and the athletes themselves. Gilles Moretton, president of the French Federation of Tennis, called her withdrawal “unfortunate.”
So What Does it Mean?
Paul Simeone, Ph.D., vice president of Lee Health Mental and Behavioral Health, called Osaka’s decision “courageous.”
“Self-care is really the message to people watching this drama unfold as she paid a high price for doing what I expect was a very hard decision for her to make,” Simeone says. “I have great admiration for her courage, and equally strong compassion for what she must be going through. There are many lessons here for all of us who, like her, try to balance work expectations with taking better care of ourselves.”
As many as 35 percent of elite athletes have had a mental health crisis, such as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety, according to Athletes for Hope.
Among the general population, mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (51.5 million in 2019), according to the National Institutes of Health.
Osaka’s public admission of her challenges with mental illness signals a critical step in erasing the stigma behind these kinds of issues, Simeone wrote in a previous Healthy News blog.
“We have to continue to talk about it the same way we have to normalize other differences, whether we’re talking about mental health, gender, sexuality, civil rights, whatever it is that differentiates people from the mainstream tribe,” Simeone says. “Talking about difference is what reduces stigma, including education around the fact that there’s dignity in being different. It doesn’t really matter how we’re different.”
The Next Step
Many of us find ourselves battling mental health issues on a smaller scale than the world stage. But the important thing to remember is that mental health challenges affect all of us across racial, gender, and societal lines. Osaka’s admission rings true for those of us dealing with COVID-19 and its continued aftermath – where we might be dealing with extra feelings of anxiety and depression.
But it goes beyond COVID-19. Leading experts continue to encourage that we reach out when we have problems and start a dialogue – something Osaka has done with her admission.
Are you or a family member struggling? Remember that your primary care physician is a perfect place to start the conversation about stress levels and possible mental health issues. A medical expert can advise your next steps including a conversation with a behavioral health expert.
Lee Health’s trained and compassionate mental and behavioral health experts are here for you. Our psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, advanced registered nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and other clinical support resources work with patients and family members to develop a therapy program that supports a return to a full, productive life as quickly as possible.
We can help address mental health issues through medication management, individual therapy, group therapy, case management, and more in an outpatient setting.