Naomi Osaka exposes sports’ mental-health risks with French Open exit

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The dispute between the second-ranked women’s tennis player and tournament officials over mandatory press appearances has dominated headlines in recent days. At the same time, Osaka’s frank explanation of her challenges has put the spotlight on a seldom-discussed issue among athletes of her caliber. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018,” Osaka, 23, wrote in a post on Twitter.

An estimated one-third of athletes suffer at some point from a mental-health crisis that manifests as depression and anxiety, eating disorders and burnout, according to studies cited by academics and the International Olympic Committee. Psychological well-being is also an important social issue in Osaka’s home country of Japan, which has the second-highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven nations, after the U.S., and where there’s also a movement to bring more awareness about to mental health in sports.

“An athlete’s mental-health needs are just as important as their physical-health needs,” said Rosemary Purcell, a professor at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and co-author of a 2019 study into the issue among elite athletes.

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There’s “been an explosion” in research over the past decade, Purcell said. There’s often a public assumption that physical strength and ability is matched by mental strength, which isn’t necessarily true, she added. Athletes, especially those competing professionally and at the top of their sport, don’t usually have a chance to lead normal social lives, all while facing intense scrutiny and pressure.

In 2019, the IOC embarked on a campaign to raise awareness, citing public disclosures by U.S. medalist Michael Phelps about his struggles with depression after winning gold medals in London in 2012, and struggles by other prominent athletes. The Olympic Committee has established a Mental Health Working Group, in order to better identify athletes at risk for mental health symptoms and disorders.

For the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, as well the Winter Games in Beijing next year, the IOC has established a helpline, available to athletes in more than 80 languages, to support them before and after the tournaments. Right now, conditions can be even tougher for athletes in the pandemic era, which is making it harder to train and has caused a one-year delay to the Tokyo Olympics from last year, the group said.

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Dai Tamesue, a sprinter who competed in the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics, pointed out that Japan tends to place a burden on athletes with unreasonably high and rigid standards. From hairstyles to their personal lives, those in amateur and professional sports are expected to act a certain way, adding to their stress and mental burden, he said.

“Athletes are held up in society as role models who aren’t supposed to say anything that suggests they are weak,” Tamesue said. “Especially in Japan, there’s a desire to make them fit a certain mold.”

In her social-media post on Monday, Osaka said she has suffered from depression and social anxiety disorder. The high-profile tennis tournaments, Osaka said, exacerbate her condition. Osaka has the added burden of dealing with questions that go beyond tennis to gender issues and the Black Lives Matter social movement, Tamesue said, adding that they “add to the stress.”

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Businesses, especially the sponsors that shower cash on athletes to promote their products, can also do more to highlight and support mental health issues, Purcell said. Sponsorships for a top-level athlete like Osaka, who is estimated to have earned more than $55 million last year, can also become a huge burden.

“You’d hope that some of these sponsors and companies would be getting on board and reinforcing this message,” Purcell said.

Yasutaka Ojio, a researcher at Japan’s National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, said professional athletes are often surrounded by people who have a stake in their success, instead of close friends and family who know them well and are watching out for their well-being. “Like with Michael Phelps, I hope that this becomes a bigger movement and delivers more positivity,” he said.

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Ojio teamed up last year with the Japan Rugby Players Association to bring more awareness to mental health challenges in sports. A website they launched, called “The Weak are Strong Project,” features testimonials from several athletes, including Tamesue, speaking openly about their vulnerabilities and the need to bring more awareness to psychological well-being.

“The notion that everyone has to show up every single time to a match is not going to work,” Purcell said. “If we can have people like Naomi Osaka talking about this, it helps to destigmatize it for the broader populace.”

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This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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