Mental health issues in sports were once stigmatized, but today more professional athletes are stepping forward to acknowledge the pressures they face. Tennis player Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal last Monday from the French Open was one more example of how intense competition and public pressure can result not only in physical injury, but mental suffering as well.
According to Axios, pro athletes are coming forward to talk about about their bouts of anxiety or other mental health conditions and asking for accommodations in their professional careers. Osaka, 23, announced last week that she needed to skip the media sessions, saying, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” Her announcement resulted in a $15,000 fine from the French Open and the Grand Slam tournament chiefs made it clear she risked being disqualified if she continued to decline her media duties.
Osaka admitted she suffers from depression when she subsequently announced her withdrawal from the tournament.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she said. “So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Dr. Georgia Gaveras, chief psychiatrist at Talkiatry, told Axios that she thinks “it’s good to see this generation taking mental health and treating it like it should be which is just health.”
And Illinois Department of Public Health Deputy Director Garth Walker agreed, adding that mental health should be treated like any other illness. “Thank you @naomiosaka for leading," he said.
However, tennis great Martina Navratilova, told The New York Times that Osaka’s departure from the French Open was “just really sad.” Navratilova, who had her share of tennis turmoil during her 50 years in the game said, “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself and instead she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”
But mental health experts are praising the young tennis player’s honesty and appreciate the fact that athletes and other people in Osaka’s age group are seeking professional help. According to the American Psychological Association, 70% of both Generation Z and millennials said they received help from a mental health professional, says Axios.
“In today’s generation there’s a level of compassion because we are more educated,” Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN commentator said Tuesday. According to Axios, American professional leagues are becoming more hands-on about mental health.
In May 2019, both the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association said they would require each team to hire a clinician to focus on supporting the players’ emotional wellbeing, says The Wall Street Journal. NBA and WNBA teams also have plans for mental health emergencies. Every Major League Baseball team has a mental health coach for its athletes.
And leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments responded to Osaka’s departure by promising to address players’ concerns about mental health in the future, according to Axios.
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