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Tennis Star Naomi Osaka Adds to Mental Health Conversation with Powerful Decisions to Put Hers First

By Jennifer Roback

Photo of Tennis star Naomi Osaka
Photo of Tennis star Naomi Osaka via Instagram

Mental health has been an important conversation among athletes over the past few years. Female athletes have started to take a stand and advocate on why taking care of your mental health should be a priority.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, made a statement regarding mental health awareness when she opened up about her struggles with mental health and withdrew from the French Open late last month because of them.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really had time coping with that,” Osaka said in an Instagram post.

Osaka’s decision opened up a conversation about the toll being a female athlete has on mental health. In a 2020 study regarding the psychology of female athletes, it found that rates of anxiety and depression are high among the female population.

Her decision to withdrawal from the French Open also sparked a conversation about the strict rules in place for athletes. After missing her media interviews, Osaka was fined $15,000 for not participating in them and threatened disqualification before withdrawing completely.

“I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” Osaka continued in her Instagram post. “I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that…when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press, and fans.”

Osaka adds to the list of female athletes standing up against mental health. Gymnast Aly Raisman also opened up back in April on CBS This Morning about her struggles with mental health and noting that healing is not “one-size-fits-all.”

“I feel differently each day, but it's been really interesting because I went from being in the best shape of my life, working out six to seven hours some days, to honestly, some days, not even being able to go for a 10-minute walk outside," Raisman said. "I'm still kind of trying to navigate how to fully recover, but I've learned the importance of being kind to myself."

Olympic-swimming Amanda Beard has also been a face for mental health awareness among female athletes since the release of her memoir, In The Water, They Can’t See You Cry.

In 1996 at just 14-years-old, Beard won three medals at the Atlanta games and over the next decade, battled with personal demons that came from childhood fame that led her to alcohol and drug use.

All these athletes and many more have been the faces of a movement among female athletes and by sharing their stories they are not only advocating for awareness but helping those who feel alone know they’re not.

“If you type in ‘athlete depression,’ you’re going to find the best athletes in the world being vulnerable and sharing what they’ve been through,” said Victoria Garrick, a volleyball player at the University of Southern California, in an interview with the New York Times. “That is a huge difference. It says that you can be an elite athlete — the best in the world — and you can still experience anxiety.”

One of the most common conceptions of mental health is that you are weak, making athletes more vulnerable to hiding their mental health issues in fear of seeming weak to opponents.

Since advocation of mental health has been on the rise, there have been conversations, making athletes feel more open to discussing their struggles in hopes to empower those who are scared of being perceived as weak.

Matthew Smith, a professor of health history at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, said in an email to the New York Times that athletes appear more open to discussing their problems than ever before.

“Historically, athletes have been reluctant to talk about their mental health, not least because it could be used against them,” Smith said.

By speaking up, athletes make a stand and also spark a conversation about change. Following Osaka’s decision and the Grand Slams fine, they have since offered support to her for sharing her experience and promise to improve stigmas for athletes moving forward.

"On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court," they said in a statement. "Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention."

On June 17, Osaka continued her stance on putting mental health first after deciding to withdraw from Wimbledon, one of the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournaments, to spend time with friends and family before heading off to Tokyo to compete in the 2021 Olympic Games.

"Naomi won't be playing Wimbledon this year," a statement released by her agent read. "She is taking some personal time with friends and family. She will be ready for the Olympics and is excited to play in front of her home fans."

The tournament’s Twitter page then went on to show their support of Osaka’s decision by tweeting, “You’ll be greatly missed, @naomiosaka- wishing you all the best at home and the Olympics and hope to welcome you back next year.”

Sports psychologist Kanyali Ilako, states in an interview with Nolen King of NPR that treating athletes like humans is key to fixing the problems regarding mental health and athletes.

“We only see athletes as one thing, we forget that they have other things going on for them, Ilako said. “An athlete is a human being first before they're an athlete and allowing them to go through normal human interactions and experiences will help curb a lot of these mental health issues that are coming up.”

Osaka’s decision to put mental health first is only part of the many conversations that need to be made in the sports community to help promote change. As more athletes step forward, they continue to inspire future generations of elite athletes in hopes to show that their mental illness is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

“We should start looking at mental injury just the same way we look at physical injury because if an athlete is injured physically they're given time off, they go through physical rehabilitation,” Ilako said. “You know, everybody's working really hard to get them back to where they used to be so that they can perform even better. But then we need to extend the same grace towards people who face mental health issues as well.”

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