This week, 23-year-old tennis phenom Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to tend to her mental health. It was an incredibly brave and bold move. Tournament rules require players to participate in press interviews after matches.
She was first fined $15,000 for missing an interview opportunity. When organizers threatened greater penalties, Osaka decided to take a stand. In a statement on Instagram, Osaka wrote,
The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.Naomi Osaka
A self-described introvert who wears headphones to manage social anxiety at tournaments, she has trouble speaking in public without being overcome by nerves. “Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious,” says Osaka. “So I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences…I’m gonna to take some time away from the court now.”
Gilles Moretton, the French Tennis Federation president, was unsympathetic. “I think,” he said, “it’s a phenomenal error.”
I could not disagree more.
This is not the case of some B-level player trying to score media points or up her Twitter following. Osaka is currently ranked #2 in the world (down from #1 in 2019), and she’s the world’s highest paid women’s player.
Osaka bravely speaks for a generation of young people who are struggling with depression and anxiety. Between 2007 and 2017, depression in teenage girls increased by 66 percent. In 2017, 3.2 million teens said they had faced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Suicide is now a leading cause of death for American children ages 10 to 19.
By speaking out about her own depression and the need for self-care, Osaka is heroically doing something for herself, but also for millions who quietly suffer in silence. As a social worker and family therapist, I applaud her for speaking out because I know the impact she will have.
Here are five important takeaways from Osaka’s courageous stance
1. Mental health is not fixed by pouring yourselves into work
If just putting your head down and working harder solved depression and anxiety, Naomi Osaka would be most mentally fit person alive. It doesn’t work that way. And conversely, just because someone looks like they are the specimen of good health on the outside, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering on the inside.
Osaka made her self-care and mental health the priority over work. Of course, she has the means to do this. But we can all take steps to not always prioritize our work and school over our mental health. It may be the best choice to take a semester off or take a less stressful job in order to treat mental illness.
2. Sometimes you have to lose first before you win
In many ways, Osaka has already triumphed in her career. But she is also taking a huge loss. She withdrew from a tournament she might have won. Withdrawing might have also cost her greatly in endorsement deals (although Nike, Mastercard, Nissan, TAG Heuer and several others have publicly put their brands behind Osaka since her withdrawal.)
Hopefully, taking this break and speaking about her depression and anxiety will offer her opportunities for health and wellbeing. In a time when we are often in a race to reach the top of our potential, to be as successful as we can be, Osaka shows that it is fine not to win at all costs.
3. No one can do the work of mental health treatment for you
Sure parents, teachers and coaches all show great care for many young people. However, the truth is that no matter how much other people care, it takes self-commitment to make changes in one’s life. Osaka took her mental health into her own hands and is personally taking steps to work through her issues. That is very brave.
4. Changing the status quo starts with one person taking a brave stance
Osaka has a huge platform, and not just her 2.4 million Instagram followers. When she stated she would opt out of the Western & Southern Open in support of the Black Lives Matters protests against police brutality, the event was postponed. When she wore seven facemasks for seven matches with the names of seven different victims of racial injustice, newspapers and media around the globe covered it. When Osaka speaks, people listen. And when people listen, there can be more opportunity for change. One need not have the fame of Naomi Osaka though to make a difference on a smaller stage in your community. Let’s use her efforts as motivation to stand up for what is important in our lives.
5. Speaking our secrets is not as scary as it may seem
The pressure on Osaka was intense. She could have just done the press conferences. Alternatively, she could have dropped out and blamed a phantom quad injury. But she didn’t.
She spoke her truth and that truth is that she suffers from depression and anxiety. She isn’t alone. And now others who feel alone know they are not. Every time someone speaks up about their mental illness, the power of that secret dissipates.
To dismantle the stigma that still exists for mental illness we need much more of this. Speak your truth. Say it out loud. Be vulnerable and let others support you. Those words will make a powerful difference in way you may never know. Be the Naomi Osaka for someone else.
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