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In May, Naomi Osaka announced that she was going to withdraw from this year's French Open on account of her mental wellbeing. In the process, she sparked an important conversation around professional athletes' mental health.
Now, Osaka has opened up about the decision in an essay titled "It's O.K. Not to Be O.K." published yesterday in Time. In the essay, Osaka wrote about her decision to opt out of a press conference and ultimately withdraw from the tournament, as well as the public's response. In the aftermath, she learned that "you can never please everyone," but also that "literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does," she wrote.
Osaka went on to reflect on how the sports world could do better to take care of its athletes. "Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions," she wrote. "In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it's not habitual. You wouldn't have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy."
If you need a recap, Osaka posted a statement on Twitter on Wednesday, May 26, sharing that she wouldn't be participating in press conferences during the tournament (which ran from May 21 to June 13). "I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," she wrote. "We're often sat there and asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."
She went on to express that tennis organizations shouldn't continue to fine players for opting out of press opportunities during tournaments. "However, if the organizations think they can just keep saying, 'do press or you're gonna be fined', and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh," she wrote. "Anyways, I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Naomi Osaka, the 20-Year-Old Tennis Player Who Beat Serena Williams)
On May 30, Osaka played her first match in the tournament, defeating Patricia Maria Tig and opting out of the post-match press conference. She was fined $15,000 for not participating in the press conference, and the Grand Slam organizers released a joint statement about the penalty. After Osaka announced that she wouldn't be participating in "mandatory media interviews," the Roland-Garros (aka French Open) team asked her to reconsider and "tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site," according to the statement.
"Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes' well-being and suggest dialog on the issues. She was also reminded of her obligations, the consequences of not meeting them and that rules should equally apply to all players," it reads. The statement continues on to note that should Osaka continue to skip press throughout the tournament, she could face tougher penalties, including being defaulted (read: eliminated) from the tournament.
Just a day later, Osaka took to Twitter once again — this time, however, she announced her withdrawal from the tournament. "Hey everyone, this isn't a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago," she 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. I never wanted to be a distraction and accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly." She went on to reveal that she's been dealing with "long bouts of depression" since 2018 and that she gets "huge waves of anxiety" before speaking to media. (Related: Naomi Osaka Withdrew from a Tennis Match to Support the Black Lives Matter Movement)
The news sparked a dialogue on the internet. While some people criticized Osaka (e.g. Piers Morgan, who deemed Osaka an "arrogant spoiled brat" even though he walked out on his own interview this year) most applauded the tennis player's decision to prioritize her mental health. Some of Osaka's fellow tennis stars weighed in. "I feel for Naomi," Serena Williams said in an interview; Billie Jean King tweeted that Osaka was "incredibly brave" for opening up; and Coco Gauff tweeted that she admires "[Osaka's] vulnerability."
Some people have echoed Osaka's sentiments that tennis organizations aren't keeping athletes' mental health in mind. "Let's be clear: Naomi Osaka didn't withdraw due to mental health reasons," one person wrote on Twitter. "She withdrew because of a hostile work environment that wouldn't make reasonable accommodations for her mental health." (Related: How to Decode Your Health Insurance to Find Affordable Mental Health Care)
Let’s be clear: Naomi Osaka didn’t withdraw due to mental health reasons. She withdrew because of a hostile work environment that wouldn’t make reasonable accommodations for her mental health. #IStandWithNaomiOsaka
— Michael Zimmer (@michaelzimmer) June 1, 2021
"I applaud Naomi Osaka for being brave enough to take care of herself at such a young age," another person tweeted. "The backlash & fine she's received even after explaining is why so many people suffer in silence. We need to do better. A profession should NEVER come before a person's wellbeing."
Other athletes with social anxiety are likely identifying with Osaka's experience as well. "Just as Naomi Osaka has expressed, many athletes are not comfortable with public speaking and that intense focus on them which can be a massive trigger for someone with social anxiety," says Caroline Ahlstrom, L.M.F.T., clinical director of the Newport Institute, which provides healing centers for young adults with primary mental health issues. "For those with a fear of public speaking, it can trigger a fight or flight response — an acute stress response that tells the body it is in danger." Facing a barrage of questions and cameras can be especially overwhelming after a major match when an athlete's adrenaline is high, and a one-on-one interview format could be less anxiety-inducing, says Ahlstrom.
Even though more and more people have been opening up about mental health, there's still a stigma attached to mental health challenges and illnesses, especially among athletes and celebrities, says Ahlstrom. "Elite athletes may feel that when they are open about their mental health struggles, it exposes a weakness that can be used against them," she explains. "Similarly, as in the current situation with Naomi Osaka, it can generate even more attention and cause even more anxiety." (Related: Why We Need to Stop Speculating About Other People's Mental Health, According to Therapists)
In her announcement about exiting from the French Open, Osaka noted that she hopes to "work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press, and fans," and her recent Time essay suggests she still feels that way. So, Osaka's decision may (hopefully!) spark change within the tennis community and professional organizations in the future.
But her words have arguably already had a major effect on people everywhere. "Any time a public figure opens up about their struggles, they have the potential to help others who may be in a similar situation, letting them know they are not alone," says Ahlstrom. "Especially as a young adult, Naomi's posts can inspire other young athletes and even just young adults in general who are struggling to set boundaries in order to protect their mental health."