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The Unspoken Message of Naomi Osaka

We need to talk not just about mental health issues but about their treatment.

Key points

  • Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open calls much-needed attention to mental health concerns.
  • We also need to devote attention to how these pervasive and debilitating mental health concerns can be treated.
Yuris Alhumaydy/Unsplash
Source: Yuris Alhumaydy/Unsplash

By Liza Zwiebach, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates

The past week has brought significant coverage of tennis great Naomi Osaka and her decision to withdraw from the French Open, in the context of the tournament’s onerous demands that players participate in post-match press conferences. Prior to the tournament, Osaka had stated that she would be choosing to incur fines rather than engage with the press; however, following the unsympathetic stance with which the French Open leadership greeted that decision, Osaka later announced her withdrawal from play in a statement that also disclosed her longstanding struggle with depression and anxiety.

It’s not difficult to empathize with Osaka’s position, particularly as she describes the subjective experience of being “kicked when you’re down” in taking press questions after a loss. Who in their right mind would relish the experience of having the fine points of their performance picked apart, especially right after a devastating defeat? To compound that pressure facing any athlete in a similar circumstance, we must also consider the added scrutiny heaped upon women, and particularly Black women and women of color. No doubt Osaka must feel as though she is under a microscope. My heart broke a bit in reading her disclosure that wearing headphones in a public setting serves as a coping mechanism for her social anxiety. To think of such a successful and dominant world-class athlete enduring the subjective experience of profound vulnerability just in the course of her daily job is startling. I also admire Osaka’s bravery and integrity in speaking out and advocating for herself, particularly with regard to a matter as unfairly stigmatizing as one’s own mental health.

And yet, as a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and other fear-based conditions, I am also struck by a message that Osaka seems to have received and possibly is perpetuating in her statement: the notion that one must simply suffer with and endure anxiety or depression. On the contrary, effective treatment is available for both conditions, and no one should have to develop elaborate workarounds—much less have to retreat from a blockbuster career—to accommodate their burdens. In some ways, episodes like this serve the valuable purpose of humanizing athletes and calling attention to the real struggles of very public life with its cycles of idealization and exploitation. And yet, I hope the takeaway is not that mental health struggles, for Osaka or anyone else, are chronic realities that one must simply accept.

In an alternate reality, if I had my own audience with Osaka, I might talk with her about what her life could look like without having to simply manage her anxiety and depression in perpetuity. I might explain that engaging in treatment can be a challenge, but one to which she would without question prove a formidable match. I could reference the spirited line from her statement: “I won’t subject myself to people who doubt me”, and express instead the utmost confidence. Probably, I would say, “Naomi, you’re tougher than all of us combined – I know you can do it.”

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