Naomi Osaka's experience at the French Open highlights a stark reality that when it comes to mental health there is still a long way to go.
Recent years have been characterised by significant awareness raising of mental health, the impact it can have and how to support someone who may be battling. We’ve come a long way. Mental health is firmly on the national, if not global agenda and we’ve taken substantial steps to reducing stigma.
This past year has seen particular emphasis on self care, and looking after ourselves. News headlines regularly report on the mental health impact of Covid-19 across all demographics from students to the over 65s. Few will have emerged from extended lockdowns unscathed and mental health is one area where the impact is likely to be severe and longstanding.
The rhetoric around mental health is changing. Promoting good mental health, the acceptance of the struggles many of us have and the willingness of high profile individuals and celebrities to speak out and share their stories has contributed to making it an increasingly acceptable and ‘normal’ part of life.
Given all this progress and change it is all the more shocking to witness how Roland Garros have chosen to respond to Naomi Osaka’s attempt to practice self care and her disclosure of her recent struggles with her mental health.
Naomi Osaka, one of the best tennis players in the world, displayed guts and applaudable transparency when she shared how her struggles with depression and social anxiety make media interviews very challenging. In the same breath she took sensible steps to practice good self care and look after herself by initially skipping a post match press conference, and ultimately withdrawing from the tournament altogether.
The response from Roland Garros was frankly appalling.
Equally concerning has been the media and celebrity response.
It feels like a huge slap in the face and an abrupt about turn from all the progress made. To see someone bravely share and practice the self-care we have advised over and over again and have this so publicly and empathetically disregarded is heartbreaking. The message is clear. It’s still not okay to not be okay and that is a real problem.
When situations like this happen they ripple far and wide. We all pay attention and we all hear the message that is being broadcast- when someone risks doing the right thing for their mental health it may well have consequences. It sets us back in a big way. And it keeps happening.
We are never going to create a society where it is okay to struggle, to share and to take care of yourself if those who have the power to create change and set an example use it in such a misguided way. Change has to come from all angles and that means from the top and the ground up.
Roland Garros have missed a huge opportunity to create change, to show themselves as supportive and progressive in their thinking and to genuinely put the health of their athletes first and foremost. Thankfully, I believe that Naomi’s transparency, authenticity and realness will go a long way to inspiring others to stand up for themselves and their needs.
But, it isn’t acceptable in this day and age to dismiss and discredit anyone who speaks out about their mental health. We will all be touched in some way by mental illness in our lifetime and when we are, it is empathy, support and acceptance that will make that experience bearable and not insurmountable.
We have to take real steps forward and ensure that when we do make progress it is both real and tangible. The consequences of failing to do this are dire.
It is okay to not be okay and it is okay to share it. We need to show people they are not alone and to continue to normalise this. We also need this message to ring out loud and clear: struggling with your mental health does not prevent you from also being able to be happy, successful, functional and indeed a world class tennis player.
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