Yes, Mental Health Is Important

When tennis pro Naomi Osaka declined to talk to the media after a match during the French Open, officials fined her $15,000 and threatened to expel her from the tournament. Citing her struggles with anxiety and bouts of depression, Osaka withdrew from the French Open. In a post on her Instagram account, she said to her followers, “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.” It is the first time in professional tennis that a star as highly ranked as Osaka who was not physically injured has walked away from a tennis event as big as the French Open.

The knee-jerk reflexive response from some in the media was to label the tennis star a “spoiled athlete”. British on-air personality Piers Morgan called Naomi Osaka a “an arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions’, his Daily Mail column. Tournament directors for their part quickly released statements defending their decision to fine the star.

However, professional athletes and healthcare professionals have almost universally flocked to her defense.

Psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi, who has worked with many students and professional athletes, said, “Many athletes ruminate about what they said during an interview or how they were portrayed in an article or television segment,” Magavi said. “They may replay portions of what they expressed and blame themselves for the content of their speech.”

Some athletes have revealed to Magavi in therapy sessions they felt that one wrong comment or statement they make could ruin their professional careers or personal lives, she said. This means some will agonize over questions they might be asked in interviews for hours and prepare how they might respond if controversial topics are brought up.

“This anticipatory anxiety could adversely affect their processing speed and their performance during the match, game, or tournament,” Magavi said. “This kind of pressure can cause demoralization and cause or exacerbate self-esteem concerns, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts.” In 1995, Richard Williams, father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams, famously interrupted an ABC News interview, chiding the correspondent John McKenzie for repeatedly questioning 14-year-old Venus’ answers to his questions. Mr. Williams expressed concern that Mr. McKenzie was attempting to undermine his daughter’s confidence in her performance on the tennis court.

Addressing mental health is the right and healthy thing to do, regardless of the stigma, the fear, and the perceived career consequences. Encouraging people to speak honestly about mental health including suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety or burnout will help sufferers cope with the extraordinary stresses they face and will save lives.

In the wake of Osaka’s withdrawal and strong support for her withdrawal and mental health concerns, French tennis federation officials struck a more conciliatory tone admitting that they “can do better” in addressing players’ mental health issues and “will continue to improve the player experience at our tournaments, including as it relates to media.”