Osaka and the import of mental health issues

June 16, 2021
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NAOMI Osaka’s experience at the just concluded French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament has once again called attention to the issue of mental health in the world and the significance and seriousness we attach to such issues in our interactions and relationships. Osaka, the world’s highest paid female tennis player, had announced before the start of thetournament that because of mental health issues, she would not want to take part in the press conferences mandatory as part of the matches there. The organizers of the tournament would hear none of that, insisting that the press conferences were integral part of the tournament and that she was going to be heavily fined if she did not show up for her scheduled press conferences after her matches. And they made good the threat after her first round match and her not attending the press conference for the match by imposing a fine of $15,000 on her. Osaka also stuck to her guns and said she would be prepared to pay the fines if only the money would go to supporting charities on mental health. At that point, the organisers upped the ante, joining with the orgnanisers of the three other tennis grand slams, to jointly warn her that she risked harsher penalties, including being defaulted from the tournament and a further disqualification from the other grand slams if she continued to not fulfil her media obligations. The grand slam organizers insisted on not allowing a situation that would be seen as unfair to the other players.

With many commenters, including major tennis players, coming out against Osaka and insisting that she could not hide under mental health issues to evade the responsibility of attending press conferences, she did what was most reasonable in the circumstance by withdrawing from the tournament. Her statement announcing her withdrawal states: ‘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. … The truth is that I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. … In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite out-dated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. … I am going to take some time away from the court now.’ With a light on her struggles with mental health, it would be understandable why Serena Williams would publicly sympathise with her, saying ‘The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions. … We all have different personalities. I am thick, others are thin. It’s best to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way she thinks she can. That’s the only thing I can say: I think she is doing the best she can.’ And Martina Navratilova also voiced support for her: ‘I truly hope she will be okay. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shift. … This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are pulling for you.’

Yet, not all were as understanding and supportive. There were indeed some who came out trivialising the issue of mental health and suggesting that there was nothing serious with mental health challenge that would justify not participating in press conferences. Piers Morgan even cynically argued that Osaka was narcissistically seeking to exploit mental health for her own personal gains, calling her ‘a petulant little madam.’ And Will Swanton added: ‘The immaturity, preciousness and hypocrisy of Naomi Osaka leaves me speechless.’ Evidently these contrary positions were oblivious of not just the general reality and implications of mental health for sufferers, but also the growing trend of mental health issues arising from the more than a year of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Rodney Rapson has argued that the whole tennis industry has taken a hit from the negative impact of Covid-19 and associated lockdowns and disruptions, with the industry suffering financially through cancellations and dwindling sponsorship, while also exacerbating the stresses for traveling tennis players, such that before even the players hit the courts, there is a seemingly endless list of testing, travel restrictions, quarantining and social bubbles to adhere to. The tightly restricted environment in which tennis players operate now, according to Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist, ‘really effects relationships, … effects stress levels, … effects emotional well-being in general,’ such that ‘we have never seen this much retirement, withdrawals from tournament, injuries, tension.’ The implication is that we cannot deny the increased pressure on the tennis players and the import of this on their mental health.

Are we therefore not pretending that things are normal when they are obviously not normal? In any case, how do we sit in judgement over the mental health situation of another person when he/she is not our patient and we are not experts assigned the duty of evaluating the person’s mental health? The truth is that only the person undergoing mental health challenges and his/her carers and medical assessors are in a position to pronounce or tell us about the extent of his/her suffering and challenges as this is not an issue susceptible to general pontifications and prognostications. What the Osaka experience has shown is that the world continues generally not to take issues of mental health seriously and the tendency has been for us to continue to minimize the suffering and pains of mental health challenges. Nonetheless, perhaps the cause of mental health would have been served better were Naomi Osaka to have taken the step to withdraw from the tournament altogether before its start because of her mental health issues and not seek to take part under restricted compliance with its known rules.

That would have squarely focused attention on her state of mental health and its importance to functioning well as a tennis player, with the possibility of this easily generating the later reaction from the organizers of the grand slams: ‘On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court, … Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention.” Going forward, we want to learn from the changed perspective of the organizers of the grand slams to come to a better appreciation of the weight and import of mental health issues and challenges. We also must work to deepen our dialogue and conversations about these challenges and see the need to infuse our responses to mental health issues and sufferers with empathy.

We must get the message that the agony of mental health challenges would only continue to grow if we persist in dismissing the suffering of those with the challenges or voice out their experiences with the challenges, with attendant loss to all involved. Let us all therefore resolve to build on the Osaka saga to have a positive change in our attitude to mental health issues and therefore be in a position to provide and offer relief to the many bearing the pains of mental health challenges in the world.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan.

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