Naomi Osaka became the face of mental health when she withdrew from the French Open, citing anxiety and depression.
Without realizing it, the tennis pro suddenly found herself in a position in which she was representing millions of others who also struggled with mental health. Rather than shy away from the attention, Osaka embraced it while opening up in an essay for Time magazine.
"It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does," she wrote. "The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions."
Osaka explained that she made the decision to skip press conferences for the French Open in an effort to "exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health." She had previously missed one press conference in seven years and was taken aback by the scrutiny that ensued.
"In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual. You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy," she wore. "In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms—frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones."
When Osaka first announced she would not partake in press conferences, she described how the media had the power to negatively impact an athlete's confidence, stating that journalists who relentlessly pressed them for answers following a loss was like "kicking a person while they're down."
"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," she wrote in a statement on Twitter. "We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm not just going to subject myself to people that doubt me."
Writing for Time, Osaka stated that she did not want to endure the scrutiny she experienced regarding her medical history again, and requested that the press provide her with privacy and empathy.
"Believe it or not, I am naturally introverted and do not court the spotlight. I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right, but that often comes at a cost of great anxiety," she continued. "I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers. I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel."
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