RESPONSE FROM NATIONAL NOW PRESIDENT, CHRISTIAN F. NUNES:
Naomi Osaka, a famous tennis player, recently announced she’s leaving tennis indefinitely to cater to her own mental health needs. What would you say is the significance of this on mental health? How might it impact future athletes?**
Naomi Osaka’s decision is courageous and estimable. However, it shouldn’t have to be. Mental health is health. Would she have faced the same backlash if she left because she injured her arm or leg? Of course not. As one of the world’s best athletes, Osaka just conveyed to fans around the world that mental health challenges are real and that it’s unhealthy – and potentially dangerous – to ignore them. Often, society doesn’t view mental health as a comparable health issue, and it becomes an invisible illness. Millions of people suffer silently, and many alone. So, seeing figures like Osaka normalize these issues reminds others that they’re not alone and that getting help is possible. Naomi Osaka’s bravery just provided hope to many and normalized anxiety.
Is Osaka’s departure indicative of any patterns or trends in Black women’s mental health?
Black women carry the weight of centuries of trauma – and are expected to carry-on without grace or support. But far too many Black women face obstacles in finding resources to help their mental health and they face boundaries that prevent them from accessing healthcare. Many Black women are the core of their families and communities and take on enough physical and emotional responsibilities to make anyone else buckle under the pressure. The idea of the “strong Black woman” isn’t an archetype or a cliché; Black women are incredibly strong, and we have to be. I think Osaka’s decision sent a clear message that asking for help is a sign of strength.
What are some ways that tennis as a sport can address some of these mental health issues?
We look to athletes as the ideal examples of physical excellence, but sometimes we forget that they are not machines. Sports are as much – if not more – a mental game as a physical one and should be treated equally. Athletes should have access to counselors in addition to coaches and physical trainers. Sports organizations are just starting to incorporate mental health services for athletes. For example, after many current and former Olympians – including 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps – went public with their mental health challenges and struggles with suicidal ideation, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee introduced more robust support services to care for them on and off the field. Just like every athlete is different, mental healthcare can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Sport’s governing bodies need to listen to their athletes and what they need and actually act on it.