The sporting world sat up and took notice when the then 20 years old, Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams to win the US Open in 2018. A new star was unveiled to the world, and she was widely celebrated. She became an overnight celebrity and achieved instant global stardom. However, she struggled to hold back her tears on that stage, as some of the partisan audience booed her for defeating fan favourite, Serena Williams.
Fast forward to 2021 and Naomi has just revealed that she had been battling with bouts of depression, dating from the 2018 US open success. Coincidentally, Serena Williams herself, had suffered an emotional loss of control in that 2018 match, as she argued and raged at the Umpire as she gradually but steadily saw the title slipping from her grasp. It was contrasting fortunes that heralded the entry of a new champion (Naomi) and the gradual eclipse of an all-time great (Serena). But in that moment, they both shared something in common: deep emotional reactions to their contrasting fortunes.
When Naomi initially announced that she would not be holding press conferences at the French Open, public opinion was divided between showing her some understanding and denouncing her for failing to honor her contractual obligations. The Officials took a dim view of her position and fined her, with additional threats of expelling and banning her from other competitions too. But then, she prompted a flurry of conversations when she revealed that she had been struggling with bouts of depression and anxiety dating back since 2018 and that this was partly responsible for wanting to avoid the press conferences.
To put this in context, Naomi is shy and soft spoken; and once described herself as the ‘most awkward person in Tennis’. She was painfully self-aware of her foibles, but instead of detracting from her star power, it made her even more relatable and likeable. It showed us all, in case we didn’t appreciate it previously, that stars and celebrities are first and foremost, human beings – with emotions and sensitivities.
The challenge for many, is to juxtapose her mental strength on the court, her strong-willed determination to succeed and the discipline that has seen her reach the pinnacle of success, with her expressing vulnerability and a history of emotional ill-health. Many simply don’t get it.
In reality, we are all made up of different contrasting parts. A successful career in one area of life does not preclude vulnerabilities and weakness in other areas – including suffering from mental health problems. Indeed, famous celebrities such as comedian Robin Wiliams, CNN’s Anthony Bourdain e.t.c. tooktheir own lives after battling with depression for years.
Why is there suddenly so much ‘noise’ about mental health?
Because we are increasingly becoming very lonely despite all the friends on social media that we all have. Quality relationships, with people that have your back no matter what, are increasingly becoming a rarity. Yet we are social creatures with emotions. We all need a shoulder to lean on from time to time, no matter the outward trappings of success, wealth, fame, race or extent of religiosity. Everyone can suffer from mental health challenges…the same way anyone and everyone can be involved in a plane crash or car accident. Or develop a physical illness like hypertension or diabetes or cancer.
Secondly, there is growing awareness and conversations about mental illness. It was previously a completely taboo topic that was shrouded in secrecy and associated with shame and stigma. But increasingly, we are having famous people such as Prince Harry talk about his struggles with depression and drugs and regularly seeing mental health professionals. And now the Naomi Osaka situation has stirred more conversations.
Open conversations are welcome developments. It amplifies the mental health advocacy message which is exemplified by the ‘unashamed’ campaign of organizations like the Asido Foundation (www.asidofoundation.com/unashamed); a campaign that aims to reduce the shame and stigma associated with mental health challenges. Please visit the website and take the pledge to support affected persons.
Mental Health in the Workplace
Every employer owes a duty of reasonable care for the safety and health of all employees. Unfortunately, this is often limited to physical health and physical safety concerns. Mental wellbeing and the causes of psychological distress such as media bullying and a hostile work environment are often discountenanced or dismissed outrightly. Yet they are not less important.
When challenges arise as in the case of Naomi Osaka at the Roland Garros event, the Organizers needed to balance their responsibility to protect and provide support for her as an athlete, with demanding accountability for the contractual terms of her participation. Unfortunately, they apparently weighed in more heavily on the latter.
What Lessons Can We Glean from this Saga?
First, we are all vulnerable and social status does not protect us from emotional struggles. Second, the media needs to show sensitivity in reporting about people, including celebrities. Third, we all have a responsibility as individuals, friends, and family to look after our emotional wellbeing and seek for professional help if we are struggling.
It is not an acceptable get out of jail card, to simply use the emotional difficulties defence, every time we fall short of expectations. We have a duty to be responsible and accountable – including seeking for professional help; while also craving for empathy, support, and reasonable accommodation. It is a fine balancing act, but it is critical to strive for it.
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 3rd June 2021