Jun 2, 2021 - Health

Mental health and sports comes into sharp focus

Naomi Osaka in Melbourne Australia

Naomi Osaka during a women's singles round in 2020 at Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Tennis player Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open sparked conversations on the mental health pressures athletes face and the obligations leagues may or may not have to accommodate them.

Why it matters: In a profession built on powering through mental and emotional adversity, Osaka is just one example of how athletes are increasingly addressing the lack of mental health accommodations like they might for physical injuries, experts say.

  • "It’s good to see this generation is taking mental health and treating it like it should be treated which is just health," Georgia Gaveras, chief psychiatrist at mental health startup Talkiatry, tells Axios.
  • "It is OK to treat mental health like any other illness," Illinois Department of Public Health Deputy Director Garth Walker tweeted. "Thank you @naomiosaka for leading."

Context: Osaka on Monday dropped out after officials threatened to expel her from the season’s second Grand Slam tournament for not partaking in media sessions.

  • "Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences," she said in a statement.
  • She also expressed that she has suffered from “bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018."

The big picture: Osaka, 23, also shows how younger generations are much more likely than other generations to talk about their mental health.

  • 27% of Generation Z reported their mental health as fair or poor, far more than the 15% of millennials and 13% of Gen Xers, according to a 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association.
  • More than 70% of both Gen Z and millennials said they have received treatment or therapy from a mental health professional, compared with 26% of Gen Xers, 22% of baby boomers and 15% of older adults.

What they're saying: "When [fans] look at you and they hear that you’re going through something, in today’s generation there’s a level of compassion because we’re more educated, more informed, more edified," ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith said Tuesday. "Back before then, when we weren’t as educated about that, there was a significant level of insensitivity."

What's next: U.S. leagues have said within the last few years they would embed a better infrastructure for players to readily have mental health professionals.

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