By now you’ve probably heard that tennis star Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the French Open.
Image credit: By si.robi – cropped from Flickr image, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72889048
If you aren’t up to speed, Osaka posted on social media a few days ago that she would not be participating in press conferences during the French Open in order to protect her mental health. This was met with a $15,000 fine and threats by the grand slam organizers that “repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament” and could “lead to more substantial fines and future grand slam suspensions”. Osaka made the difficult decision to pull out of the tournament to preserve her mental health without risking these consequences. She was met with backlash and vitriol from the French Open organizers and some members of the media.
Her decision to withdraw from the tournament is understandable given the position she was in. And whether athletes should be contractually obligated to participate in press conferences is a whole separate discussion. But the way she was treated for prioritizing her mental health was inexcusable and incredibly hypocritical.
I think we can highlight the mental health stigma by comparing the collective response to another athlete who had to pull out of the French Open today (just a day after Osaka). Petra Kvitova suffered a fall after a press conference which resulted in an ankle injury. In her statement on social media she reported that “after an MRI and much discussion with my team, I have made the tough decision that it would be unwise to play on it.” Perhaps Kvitova could have forced herself to continue to play in order to fulfill her duties but knew that it would have been unwise to do so. The response to Kvitova’s unfortunate injury and withdrawal from the tournament was entirely supportive and kind (as it should be). She made the decision that was safest for her.
Likewise, Osaka had an illness that was flaring up (citing bouts of depression and a history of anxiety since at least 2018). She attempted to find a way to continue participating in the French Open that would accommodate her illness. But after finding out that this would be impossible she, like Kvitova, realized it would be unwise to continue and she elected to drop out of the tournament rather than risk exacerbating her illness. Her decision was met with a snide Twitter meme from French Open organizers and media personalities accusing her of being ungrateful, egotistical, and bratty.
This goes back to our societal treatment of people with mental health issues in general. Unlike physical illnesses, mental health problems are often invisible. Without objective “proof” of their symptoms, sufferers are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We are told that “mental health matters” and that mental wellness is important. But then when the ugly, difficult, or inconvenient parts of mental illness start to surface, these same faux mental health advocates become indignant and invalidating.
As a society, we express sadness and disbelief when someone dies by suicide but accuse people of being dramatic or attention-seeking when someone reveals suicidal thoughts. We advertise wellness retreats and force employees to sit through lectures on mental health during their lunch breaks, but flinch when someone asks for help with their workload or wants an hour off to go to therapy. We tell people it’s okay to cry, but when they become too depressed to care for their own hygiene we can barely contain our disgust. We tell people we will support them if only they will reach out for help, but then refuse to fund mental health initiatives. At best we are ignorantly romanticizing these illnesses, and at worst we are hypocrites gaslighting people when they are at their most vulnerable. We need to do better because stigma sucks.