Naomi Osaka Made Me Reflect on the Mental Health Inequities in Canada

Why Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles made me reflect on mental health inequities in Canada and the resilience of Black women.

Recently, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka and record-breaking Olympian Simone Biles gave “champion” a new meaning. Osaka withdrew from the French Open in a defiant act of self-care. Shortly after, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles pulled out of the team final and the individual all-around, vault, floor and uneven bars finals to prioritize her mental health. 

Reading this news, many commented on the bravery it took for Osaka and Biles to walk away from such high-profile competitions. What I saw was courage, sure, but also two exhausted Black women who had not been given the space to prioritize their mental health and had now reached their breaking point. It’s a scenario that’s all too familiar to Black women. 

“The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better.” Osaka wrote in Time magazine after withdrawing from the French Open.  

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

These words struck a chord for me. I am around the same age as Biles, 24, and Osaka, 23. I have worked in unhealthy environments, like an overly demanding student union where I was expected to work full-time hours for a part-time role. But as a representative, someone students were looking up to, I felt that I couldn’t bring my burdens to the job. I suppressed my stresses, my well-being, in pursuit of their standard of success. The pressure and workload, in addition to my studies, soon led to burnout. I couldn’t find the time or energy to work out, barely spoke in class and stopped cooking for myself, opting to rely on takeout. I was constantly competing, having to prove myself over and over, but for what prize? 

The cultural icon of the strong, resilient Black woman was born out of resistance to systemic inequities. While Black women are celebrated for our strength and tenaciously, our suffering is often masked. That’s why the actions of Osaka and Biles transcend the discussion of mental health in sport. To me, their actions made a statement about the need to protect and support Black women—physically and especially mentally.

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

In Canada, this health care gap stems in part from how mental health supports are accessed. From 2001 and 2014, 38 percent of Black Ontario residents who described their mental health as “poor” or “fair” accessed services, compared to 50 percent of white Canadians. Statistics Canada found that during the pandemic, visible minority groups were more likely to report poor mental health than white Canadians. Nearly one in three Black Canadians surveyed reported experiencing symptoms consistent with moderate to severe anxiety disorder. 

Yet, Black Canadians experience multiple barriers to mental health care, such as stigma, discrimination and the lack of Black health care professionals. The Mental Health Commission of Canada also highlights the social determinants of health that play a role, such as the higher rates of unemployment and lower average incomes among Black Canadians—factors that have been exacerbated for Black women during the pandemic. And even though mental health issues are prevalent in Black communities, there is still a lack of programs and services for Black Canadians.

An estimated 60 percent of young Black Canadian women experience racism in the health care system, according to the Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre. The Toronto organization found that Black women are often late to seek care due to past racist experiences.

“What we end up seeing on the other side of that is Black women not accessing health care until things are at crisis levels,” Dr. Notisha Massaquoi, a health equity expert and former executive director of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, told Best Health last year. So while Black women may be celebrated for our resilience and strength, what I see is also the lack of support. 

(Related: The Forces That Shape Health Care for Black Women)

Osaka and Biles made me reflect on my experience with mental health inequities in Canada, from challenges navigating the system to finding a culturally-informed practitioner. Watching these world-class athletes actively protect their mental health, and in the process demand support, was empowering. They not only shared their own struggles, but also exposed a flawed system.

When Biles returned to the 2020 Olympic competition to compete on beam, it was a historic moment. After winning bronze, she’s now won a whopping seven Olympic medals, but more importantly, this time, she competed and succeeded on her own terms. I too am discovering what resilience can look like when I set my own measures of success. I’m currently working as a freelance researcher, so sometimes, success means getting published. Other times, it’s not getting any responses to pitches and finding peace with that. Biles and Osaka reminded me that feeling safe and supported should be the goal—not competing at all cost.

Next: How This BIPOC Mental Health Podcast Got Me Through COVID-19.