“I want to be a famous basketball player.” I watched the kindergarten graduation with my heart warmed by the enthusiastic 5-year olds that crossed the stage declaring their career choice, and it occurred to me that children are shaped by our public figures starting at an incredibly young age.
With these young minds hanging in the balance, it is our responsibility to ensure that our role models have the tools that they need to be successful emotionally, behaviorally, and physically.
Yet until very recently, the current emphasis on mental health, as it pertains to elite athletes, has largely focused on mental health literacy — creating awareness about signs and symptoms that should herald a more in-depth evaluation. Once mental health concerns are identified, however, there is an insufficient framework for managing concerns.
Naomi Osaka’s bold decision to withdraw from the French Open and focus on her mental health has sent a clear message that it is important to make your mental health a priority. Brands, other athletes, and the sports community have been rallying behind Naomi in the days since her announcement to support her as she takes time away from tennis to focus on herself.
I am proud of the bravery and conviction Naomi showed when she withdrew. Knowing that she has spent countless hours training and preparing for this, both physically and mentally, and seeing that the best thing to do at that moment was step away from tennis was not a decision that I believe she made lightly. Especially when you consider she withdrew for reasons unrelated to the pressure of the game itself, but outside factors.
It can be incredibly difficult to ask for help and to admit that we need time to heal and recover. Thankfully, our society is becoming more open about mental health and talking about self-care, support, therapy, medication, etc., but we still have a long way to go. Professional athletes, entertainers and global role models should not be placed in a position to choose between their profession their and mental health stability.
With millions of fans attentively watching, professional athletes face mounting pressures associated with physically performing and looking “strong.” Confessing that stress has become overbearing currently carries no reassurance that their concerns will be heard and managed accordingly.
A culture recognizing mental health as equivalent to physical health is developing, but it is still in its infancy. An adaptive scale with a range of self-management tools and a framework that equips key stakeholders with a framework to respond accordingly has been sparked by outcries such as Noami’s. She has harnessed community attention to respond beyond just managing isolated circumstances and has initiated consideration of a comprehensive framework.
Effective mental health frameworks include athlete specific and general risk factor identification and application to phase of professional engagement. An understanding that career phase and the likelihood of peaks and valley of stress across the career span is imperative.
For example, variable stress management plans associated with travel, competitive season, breaking into the industry and retiring as an athlete should be a matter of course. Creating this framework sets the stage for these changes to become expectations within the general population as well.
Over this last year, we have seen a dramatic increase in the need for mental health support here in Tarrant County. Telehealth options removed some barriers to resources, but the need is great and we need more people to be inspired by Naomi Osaka to step forward and ask for help.
We need to be willing to look at the systems and practices we have been following to see how adjustments may need to be made to better serve our mental health. That means we need to examine ourselves and see if the coping mechanisms that worked for us before need to be updated and look at processes, like the press guidelines at the French Open, and see where we can make changes.
I like to think that there are applicable lessons for us all in this bold move by Naomi. Our children are paying close attention to what we do next. It is our responsibility to shepherd these changes into productive action.