Naomi Osaka - Mental Health & Self-Care
Now that the dust has, literally & figuratively, settled on the French Open Championships, I would like to address possibly the most contentious issue of the entire tournament, namely Naomi Osaka’s refusal to fulfill her obligations in attending post-match press conferences. She skipped the press interviews after her first-round victory, incurring the wrath of the tournament organisers, a $15,000 fine and a warning that she would continue to be fined for every match where she didn’t attend the media briefings. She subsequently withdrew from the tournament, stating she “never wanted to be a distraction”. Both she and the tournament organisers received criticism for the way they handled the situation.
"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," she wrote 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 just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me." - Naomi Osaka
Subsequently, Osaka revealed more about her mental health struggles “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have a hard time coping with that…. Here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the news conferences.”
Before the revelations about her depression, many were quick to judge and criticize her, including this very non-empathetic reaction from French Tennis Federation Chief Gilles Morreton - "It is a phenomenal mistake and it shows to what extent it is necessary to have strong governance," he said.
It is true that Osaka’s original statement was poorly worded and I also believe she could have tried to engage the tennis authorities before issuing it. However, some of the public and social media reaction to that announcement was nothing short of cruel and de-humanising. It was as if her success, and the riches that this has brought her, means she is now public property and she should put her media obligations above self-care.
As a mental health professional, I firmly believe that everyone has not only the right, but a duty to practice self-care. If we were all allowed, and devoted the time to this core activity, I truly believe we would be living in a more caring, empathetic and compassionate world.
In any normal work environment, we should not be asked to participate in activities that put our mental health at risk. Yes, I am aware of some professions that have much higher risk factors (working in the armed forces or in emergency rooms are a couple of examples that spring to mind) but this is just a sport – a game that people play for fun and entertainment. Nobody is going to be negatively impacted if a tennis player doesn’t give a post-match interview – it is just not that important. Hence, the welfare of all participants in any activity or business should take priority. Who knows, we may even reach the point where interviewees in sports events give genuine, unplanned responses to reporters’ questions if they know they will be protected from vitriolic reactions and we might just be served with something more interesting & insightful than current media-polished responses.
Putting your own wellbeing first is not the same as being selfish. Yes, we have a duty to support and help others, but we can only do that from a position of personal strength. Otherwise, our own resources will be quickly depleted and we will end up becoming a burden to others ourselves. Practicing self-care should also not be confused with the idea of caring for oneself without thought for others.
Osaka was also humble enough to say she was sorry - “I wrote privately to the tournament apologising and saying that I would be more than happy to speak to them after the tournament as the Slams are intense,” she explained to a system that appeared to have let her down. This was probably a pre-cursor to the much softer and empathetic approach that the Grand Slam organisers subsequently took.
In an era when we are encouraged to react instantly to whatever is going on, Osaka showed us that it is OK to take a break from duties and things that clamour for our immediate attention, walking away and coming back stronger.
Her choosing to open up could also offer strength to other women who need it. For women around the world, speaking up has historically been looked upon as taboo and a sign of weakness. Though heightened concerns of abuse by perpetrators or the public continue to remain prevalent, speaking up will enable others who are facing similar issues to feel less alone.
Through her eloquence and position of prominence, it seems that Naomi Osaka could be just the spokesmodel we need to champion self-care.