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Tennis ace Naomi Osaka has opened the door to a much-needed discussion about mental health

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, reacts during her match against Maria Sakkari, of Greece, in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Naomi Osaka, of Japan, reacts during her match against Maria Sakkari, of Greece, in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens, Fla., in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. Sakkari won 6-0, 6-4. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday, May 31, 2021, and wrote on Twitter that she would be taking a break from competition, a dramatic turn of events for a four-time Grand Slam champion who said she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

Mental Health Awareness month ended Monday, ironically at the same time international tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing her struggles with depression and her desire to no longer confront potentially troubling questions at news conferences.

The tournament’s referee had fined her $15,000 for refusing to attend a news conference after winning her first-round match, and the leaders of the Grand Slam tournaments had threatened to expel her and impose harsher penalties unless she agreed to speak to reporters.

Before that could happen, Osaka withdrew on her own, saying questions from reporters often were repetitive and some of them made her doubt herself. She is an introvert, and she often wears headphones during tournaments, she said in an Instagram post, to help with social anxiety.

Osaka is among the world’s best and highest paid female athletes, earning $55 million last year. The truth is many in the public treat people like that as something less than human, heaping criticisms as if they don’t hurt, and otherwise speaking publicly about them in ways they never would toward a friend or colleague.

Osaka’s decision is the talk of the tennis world, but her decision ought to reverberate far beyond that. It ought to bring attention to the many aspects of mental health, how illness such as depression is perceived, and what might be done to erase stigmas and provide greater help and understanding to those who are suffering — not just in tennis, but in all walks of life.

Had Osaka declined to speak to the press because of a physical injury — a sprain, stress fracture or even a migraine headache — we doubt she would have been fined or threatened with expulsion; needs time to recover, we might say. But because people cannot outwardly see a mental health problem, many tend to dismiss it.

Critics say part of the reason Osaka was subjected to these threats was because she had not revealed her problems before. In a social media post after withdrawing, she acknowledged dealing with “long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018,” and said, “I have had a really hard time coping with that.” She acknowledged her “message could have been clearer.”

However, her decision has to be examined against the backdrop of public misunderstandings. Given how many in the public respond to those who are forthcoming about depression and anxiety, among other mental health challenges, reticence is natural. People are afraid to open themselves to ridicule and misunderstanding.

Former player and ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs was quoted in The New York Times saying, “You cannot allow a player to have an unfair advantage by not doing post-match press. It’s time consuming, so if one player is not doing that and others are, that is not equal.”

Then she added, “But after this, it’s time to really take a hard, long look at all of it.”

Indeed, it is.

Many athletes have admitted struggling with mental health challenges. Swimmer Michael Phelps has spoken about suicidal thoughts and depression. Kevin Love of the NBA has acknowledged having panic attacks during games.

The Times said 35% of athletes deal with any of a variety of such problems, including eating disorders, burnout and anxiety.

Osaka already has made the brave decision that her own mental health is more important than pursuing the glory of another tournament championship. It’s time now for sports and all other aspects of society to respond by developing a greater awareness of mental challenges and discussing how to erase their associated stigmas.

What that means precisely, in terms of press conferences and the obligations of athletes, is not clear, but it’s important to begin the discussion. Mental health awareness should not be confined to one month out of the year.