12 Things Mental Health Experts Want You to Know About Naomi Osaka’s French Open Withdrawal

Tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open for her mental health. Here's what the therapists have to say about her choice.

Taking care of your mental health goes beyond simple self-care practices. Sometimes it involves taking some time off or scheduling a mental health day. That’s ultimately what tennis star Naomi Osaka decided during the French Open on May 31st.

Her decision to walk away from the tennis court and work on her mental health came after sharing an Instagram post about her bouts of depression. Her choice to leave the competition without a physical injury came as a shock to the tennis world. Leading into the tournament, Osaka announced she would not meet with the press or participate in post-match news conferences. This frustrated the tournament organizers who imposed $15,000 fines for missing media duties.

Osaka’s reason? Negative questions about her play during the open affect her mental health and add to her anxiety.

Osaka’s sponsors like Nike are backing and supporting the tennis star for making her well-being a priority. But what do mental health experts think of her choice? Here’s what they want you to know.

(Related: 8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health)

Anxiety and depression

For those who don’t understand social anxiety or depression, Osaka’s decision may seem like a prima donna move from one of the highest-paid athletes in women’s sports, explains Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty member at Columbia University. Her “refusal” to do a press conference comes from a much deeper place than simply not feeling like answering questions. “The thought of facing media, live TV cameras, and still cameras might actually be panic-inducing for her: The anticipation of that event becomes her sole focus to the point where it detracts from her tennis game and causes crippling anxiety,” Hafeez says. “It’s a very different scenario than someone who just doesn’t feel like doing something.”

The pressure to engage with the media, especially given the incredibly taxing nature of competitive tennis at Osaka’s level, was likely overwhelming for her, says Denise Fournier, a licensed mental health counselor and an adjunct psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Mental health disorders like major depressive disorder and social anxiety disorder, which Osaka has been open about dealing with, can be debilitating. “When a person is experiencing symptoms, even getting out of bed can feel impossible,” Fournier adds.

(Related: 6 Ways to Fight Anxiety and Depression During Covid-19)

What we can all learn from Osaka’s decision

There are lessons for everyone in Osaka’s move to make her mental health a priority.

Live your life for yourself

“Before you judge someone else, ask yourself if you understand the internal battle someone might be going through,” Hafeez says. In your own life, if you have a challenge coming up that will cause you too much emotional pain and distress to endure, weigh the pros and cons of doing or not doing that thing.

And if you are a parent, watch your children for clues, Hafeez says. “For example, is your child starring in the school play just to make you proud, but they are really phobic about appearing on stage?” Follow Osaka’s lead and live your life for yourself and your mental health because people will have opinions no matter what.

(Related: Why Everyone Should Take a Mental Health Day This Week)

Remember, we’re all human

No matter how big your job is and who is depending on you, if you’re not up to the challenge you can say no. Most world-class athletes are people who have trained all of their lives in a sport. But they are not actors, actresses, or musicians who purposely seek crowds and attention. “When [athletes] reach the level of Osaka, it is accompanied by speaking to thousands of people in a packed stadium and viewers at home. Some pro athletes are comfortable with that from the jump, others adjust to it, and some never do,” Hafeez says.

This onslaught of media is still new for the 23-year-old Osaka. It’s even more challenging when battling depression or anxiety, according to Hafeez. “Many think of athletes as warriors, however, they are as equally susceptible to depression and anxiety as the rest of us,” she says.

Singles tennis poses another significant challenge—with no teammates, it can be very isolating.

Your well-being comes first

Psychologist Leo Flanagan, a trauma and resiliency expert, says that those critical of Osaka’s decision are placing sport and competition above mental health.

Fournier adds that mental health challenges are real, and many high-performing athletes are put in a position of needing to suffer silently because honoring themselves means violating the expectations placed upon them. “From my perspective, her decision to opt-out of mandatory press conferences was a wise attempt to balance her mental health needs with her commitment to tennis,” Fournier says. “That it wasn’t received well is a reminder that we have a long way to go as a society toward truly understanding mental health and mental illness.”

(Related: 9 New Books to Read to Ease Stress and Reset Your Mind)

Your goals can wait

The most important takeaway for everyone is that while being goal-oriented is helpful, if it comes at the expense of your mental health, it’s not worth the price you’ll pay, says Jane Greer, a New York-based marriage and family therapist. “Being true to yourself and prioritizing your emotional wellbeing is the greatest accomplishment you can achieve,” she says.

Trust your gut

Success comes from trusting your intuition, not from being compulsively pulled towards other people’s visions of your life, according to Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York and author of Fragile Power. “By standing up for herself, Ms. Osaka was able to change the narrative of her life from that of a victim to that of hero,” he says. “Yes, her decision to withdraw has caused short-term disappointment, inconvenience, and financial loss to others, but the long-term gains she will realize from her decision will pay her dividends for the rest of her life.”

(Related: What You Need to Know About the Mind-Gut Connection)

Going against the grain isn’t a bad thing

Osaka’s choice shows leadership, courage, resilience, and grit, Hokemeyer says. “By pushing back against industry and cultural standards that put professional and financial gain before personal integrity, Osaka has achieved a great victory, not only for herself but for millions of people around the world who suffer in silence from mental health conditions.”

Mental health issues are more common than people may realize

The World Health Organization reports that the global prevalence of both clinical depression and anxiety is above 30 percent. Ms. Osaka’s decision to take care of herself and to share it publicly is a great contribution to mental health awareness, notes Flanagan.

“The four out of ten people now dealing with depression and anxiety should both take heart in and learn from Osaka’s decision,” he says. “They should feel encouraged to seek help and support in regaining their emotional wellness.”

Honor your limits

“Based on the information that Osaka has disclosed to the public, her decision to withdraw from the French Open is a great example of someone who is aware of their current limits and capacity,” says psychologist Deidre Pereira, a fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Health Psychology.

Osaka’s example of prioritizing her own self-care over the needs or priorities of others is one we can all learn from: Know your limits and honor the decisions you make.

(Related: 6 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety That Can Help You Feel Calmer)

Allow time for a reset

Personal limits and capacity may change from day to day and situation-to-situation. Stress, distress, physical illness, and sleep difficulties are some of the most common factors that may deplete your capacity. When these factors kick in, engage in self-care behaviors that will allow yourself to reset, recharge, and engage in valued activities, Pereira says.

“Choosing to withdraw from an important professional activity may be the best decision when it allows us to prioritize an even more valued factor, such as one’s mental well-being, relationships,” she says.

Physical and mental health are both important

It is vital that elite athletes, such as Osaka, place as much importance on their mental, behavioral, and interpersonal well-being as they do on their physical fitness, Pereira points out. “By caring for her mental health and doing so in such a public way, she is setting an extremely positive example for individuals across the globe who may also be trying to balance professional demands with their mental, behavioral, and interpersonal health,” she says.

Seek help

For anyone choosing between two valued activities or factors, processing the decision with a licensed mental health provider may help, Pereira says. “There is an empirically-based treatment called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that helps people bring their lives and behavior in line with their values,” she says. “This type of treatment may be especially helpful for people faced with these decisions.”

Building resiliency is a skill

In addition to traditional therapy, individuals can often address anxiety and depression by building their resilience. Flanagan says.

“In the Covid-19 environment developing focus, pragmatic optimism, and empathy can help people become calm and confident. People should also share their emotional challenges with those who care and love them,” she says.

Next, this is what you need to know about coping with the anxiety of the post-pandemic world.

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