Tennis star Naomi Osaka has made news these last few days for her refusal to take part in mandatory press conferences at the French Open, a decision which ultimately led her to bow out of the tournament. Post-match interviews are a requirement for players, and she cited her mental health as the reason for skipping them, leading to fines and eventually to her withdrawal.
Of course, she was castigated by those who assume that accessibility is the price of fame and fortune, and this commodification of athletes is exactly what creates the immense pressure that can be so damaging to them. And people too often equate physical strength and seeming psychological fortitude on the court/mat/playing field with immunity from mental health issues. We want our heroes to be heroes, when they are simply humans who can do extraordinary things.
I was delighted to see, however, the level of support she’s garnered, and for the larger dialogue that has been prompted by Osaka’s stance. And it’s a courageous stance, signaling not just to fellow athletes but to all of us that we are ultimately responsible for looking after our well-being.
It’s not an easy responsibility to take, made all the more remarkable that Osaka is 23 – it took me decades into adulthood to be truly able to understand my own mental health needs and to actively advocate for them. It’s a skill that wasn’t a part of my formative years, and a discussion that has only in the last few years been a part of an open national discourse.
Which is not to say those skills can’t be learned! For many of us struggling with our mental health, taking a stand for ourselves often feels too overwhelming – particularly if we are too depressed or anxious to have the bandwidth to think about our depression or anxiety. But centering and the active pursuit of self-knowledge can put us in a place to be able observe ourselves and the sensations we’re experiencing. And this knowledge can help us to make decisions – I need help, I need to step back, I need to step forward, I need create some joy, I need to protect myself from those activities that cause me psychological harm.
The hardest lessons I’ve learned during my own mental health journey have been about my own agency. I’d been in such a bad place for such a long time that I no longer felt that it was a fundamental right to be able to thrive. But through therapy and my own exploration I’ve been able to reach a point where I feel invested in my own wellness, and to act in kind.
In Osaka’s case, it was to remove herself from the media circus of post-match press conferences. For me it was to recommit myself to those things that support me – proper nutrition, sleep, movement, mindfulness and relationships; and to reassess those things that didn’t – addictive behavior, self-blame, psychologically toxic environments, people who dismissed the severity of my illness.
While we may not be able to make ourselves OK, we are able to set ourselves up for a fighting chance to be OK. And for me, believing this is the first and most fundamental step towards wellness is an affirmation of my own agency over my mental health. I believe in my ability to be well, to thrive, to find joy in life. Osaka’s story was a timely reminder that I have this right, and this power. And that the ball is always in my court.