Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Mental Health Takes Center Court

“Fault!” That’s the call of a line referee when the tennis ball lands outside an opponent’s designated service box.

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This week, the cry came when Naomi Osaka, four-time Grand Slam champion and number two ranked female tennis player in the world, refused to participate in a mandatory post-match news conference at the French Open. Tournament officials threatened to expel Osaka. All four Grand Slam tournament organizers went further, threatening more substantial fines and suspension from future competitions should she continue to refuse to speak to the media. 

1. What was at play? Osaka posted on social media that she has “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018.”  She described having “a really hard time coping with that.”  For the sake of the tournament and her own mental health, she ultimately withdrew from the French Open completely. She is taking an undetermined amount of time to tend to her mental health.

2. The power of voice. Osaka used her social media platform to share with the world her mental health struggles openly and honestly. For me, what is truly remarkable is that, in a good way, the public was not fazed. Rather than being stigmatizing, Osaka’s disclosure has been met with public support and empathy. Plenty of drama surrounded her withdrawal from the tournament, but it has not centered on her mental health disclosure.

3. The power struggle. The media hype of the past week has focused on the conflagration between this elite athlete, tournament hosts, and the media. Osaka was obligated by contract to speak to the media or be fined. Risk of penalty has held sway over the athletes – until now. The fine is negligible for Osaka so it’s no wonder that she skipped the interview, which she experiences as a form of bullying. She describes being questioned by journalists following a loss as akin to “kicking a person when they are down.” It causes her “severe anxiety.”

4. The power of community. Other elite athletes, such as Michael Phelps, have spoken about their own mental health challenges. This week, Serena Williams said, “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi… I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like.” Social support is particularly relevant for individual sport athletes such as swimmers, gymnasts, and tennis players who are more likely to report anxiety and depression than athletes who play team sports. In truth, whether we are elite athletes, recreational cyclists, or couch potatoes, supportive communities have the potential to protect and promote mental health.

5. Sufficiently empowered to call for a new balance of power. When mental health needs are ignored, when mental health problems fester in secret, when mental health is stigmatized, people suffer in silence. For too long, the stigma associated with mental illness around the world has left people without power or voice. Osaka’s refusal to stay silent about her mental health needs and her willingness to use her position of power to call for systemic changes and a rebalancing of power is a clarion call for all.

The ball’s in our court.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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