WKND Essay: In defence of Naomi Osaka
Four-time Grand Slam winner, Japanese tennis wonder and reigning Australian and US Open champion Naomi Osaka didn’t want to engage with the press due to her depression and social anxiety and everyone immediately thought the sky is falling.
In an Instagram note, Osaka wrote, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018. And I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
It’s therapeutic to go back to the 1770s.
Those days, mentally ill individuals were shunned to decrepit asylums or displayed as ‘freaks’ in shows. Renowned psychiatrist Philippe Pinel would engage with the patients in lengthy conversations, offer benevolent support and encouragement, and through his humane approach, try to understand deeper complexities of human behaviour. Through his treatment, patients improved and were able to leave the ‘asylums’.
It’s 2021 now and there are still enough taboos and stigma around mental health. A lot of industries haven’t caught up with the way modern life works. Mental health isn’t a problem you can wish away or simply work through tough love. Some of these issues (such as depression) can be debilitating and require medical and social care.
The outrage regarding Osaka’s refusal to do media engagements and the barrage of criticism that’s centered on ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘snowflake culture’ is somehow connected to the larger problem of living in a generation that does not understand mental health. Twenty-year-old Polish tennis star Iga witek once spoke openly about employing a full-time sports psychologist to help her improve in dealing with career challenges. witek’s psychologist Daria Abramowicz talked about the stigma around psychology in the field of sports. “Psychology is still stigmatised,” she told a magazine.
It seems counter-intuitive now, even more so than before, to employ the tough-love strategy when it comes to professional athletes. With the pandemic affecting everyone globally and techno-stress and media onslaughts being more severe now than ever, young individuals are more aware of their psychological, emotional and social needs and complexities. Osaka not only showed bravery in the face of a brutal industry but also stood by her ground when she posted her detailed note on Instagram. Social anxiety can be a crippling condition for many, it may also lead to physical responses such as panic attacks. Depression is a serious mental illness that impacts over 264 million people across the world, according to the WHO, and can also lead to suicide.
Just as we would expect a ramp for someone who’s on a wheelchair, we simply cannot expect someone who is dealing with depression and social anxiety to be facing media onslaughts just because their job demands it. The biggest and the main part of Osaka’s job is to be an athlete. One that she’s doing quite remarkably. Everything else, hence, is commentary.