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Naomi Osaka’s Bravery can be a Teachable Moment about Mental Health

There is no health without mental health. Credit: Unsplash /Melanie Wasser.

There is no health without mental health. Credit: Unsplash /Melanie Wasser.

ABUJA, Jun 2 2021 (IPS) - Recently, Naomi Osaka, the number 2 ranked women’s tennis player in the world, said she would not participate in the press conference at the French Open (Rolland-Garros) because she wanted to protect her mental health.

The organizers of the tournament were incensed, imposed a fine on her and threatened to disqualify her.  Would the organizers have reacted differently if Naomi Osaka said she could not participate in the tournament’s press briefing because of a physical illness, such as abdominal pain? Your guess is as good as mine, but I believe the organizers would have been more empathetic and would have provided her with the best medical treatment. The same should happen for mental health.

Osaka was stigmatized because people do not understand mental health and feel she should “man up” and attend a press conference. Further, athletes like her are all too often viewed as superhuman and incapable of showing weakness

It is wrong for the organizers to impose a fine of $15,000 on Osaka and threaten to suspend her for missing the press conference. Such reactions contribute to why mental health is still so widely misunderstood, shrouded in mystery and stigmatized.

There is no other way to put this. Osaka was stigmatized because people do not understand mental health and feel she should “man up” and attend a press conference. Further, athletes like her are all too often viewed as superhuman and incapable of showing weakness.

Due to the backlash, Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open, apologized and the French Tennis Federation President has also apologized for the way this episode was handled. However, as regrettable as the events are, it can serve as a teachable moment for everyone.

Here are five ways to ensure mental health illnesses receives the same prominence as physical illnesses.

First, there is no health without mental health. The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Surely, from this definition, Osaka could not handle the stress which comes with participating in press conferences. She said so. She mentioned her experience with depression. Participating in the tournament press conference could have worsened her health and well-being. She was right to have withdrawn from the press conference and the tournament. Her health trumps all other concerns.

Second, revealing one’s mental health challenge is a strength and not a weakness. This wrong perception of mental health is ubiquitous.

For instance, EpiAFRIC and Africa Polling Institute interviewed more than 5,000 in a nationwide mental health survey in Nigeria. Some respondents said they will use force and other extreme measures on sufferers of mental health illness.

For example, 4% said they would lock up the sufferer while 2% said they will beat the disease out of the person. The way the French Open organizers responded to Osaka’s cry for help is wrong and must be condemned by all. It is great to see the support extended to Osaka by other Black elite athletes, Serena Williams and Stephen Curry.

Third, sports tournaments must develop a comprehensive mental health support policy for athletes. This is not the first time a major athlete cried out for help in dealing with a mental health challenge.

Naomi Osaka October 28th 2020 during the semi-final match of the women’s Cincinnati Masters played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s Grandstand court. Credit: AndrewHenkelman / Creative Commons.

According to Athletes for Hope, 35% of elite professional athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. Too many athletes are suffering in silence.

Due to their achievements and celebrity status, they are being shamed into silence. To help deal with this silent pandemic, sports tournaments must develop comprehensive mental health support policy. Elite athletes such as Osaka should have mental health counsellors as part of their medical teams. No athlete should have to suffer in silence because the consequences of that could be fatal.

Fourth, we must stop viewing Black women as having higher pain threshold. It is a common misconception for Blacks to be seen to tolerate pain better than other races. According to Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 40% of first- and second-year medical students were of the belief that “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.”

Even at childbirth, Black women are sometimes refused pain medications because of this wrong belief. This leads to verbal and physical abuse of someone dealing with a debilitating health condition. When Osaka said speaking at the press conference would negatively impact her mental health, she should have been believed. She is dealing with the pain of depression and needs all the support she can get.

Finally, media outlets must train reporters on writing about mental health with empathy. The Daily Mail UK article, in which the writer accused Osaka for “cynical exploitation of mental health to silence the media” is harsh and not the way to describe someone who is dealing with depression. Such articles worsen Osaka’s battle with depression and discourages other athletes from speaking out about mental health challenges they face.

Osaka is 23 years old. At such a young age, she should be celebrated for her boldness in confronting depression and being vocal about it. I hope she gets all the recuperation she needs. I pray she becomes stronger and can play in her next tennis tournament.


Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor is a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. Ifeanyi is the Director Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch.

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