Naomi Osaka Pens Candid Essay on Mental Health Struggles, Says We Need to 'Protect' Athletes

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Naomi Osaka is speaking her piece.

In a powerful essay for Time, the tennis player opened up about her decision to withdraw from the French Open, the mental health struggles she's been dealing with for years and why she believes athletes deserve a periodic "mental break."

Ahead of the French Open's start in late May, Osaka made headlines when she announced she would not be participating in press conferences during the tournament; she wrote at the time that she believed the practice harmful to athletes' mental health.

"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," she shared. "We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."

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She subsequently picked up her first win and a $15,000 fine for not participating in media requirements. Soon after, she announced that she was withdrawing from the competition, adding in a statement that she "never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly."

Osaka confessed that she suffered from long bouts of depression since 2018's US Open in 2018 and would get "huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can."

In her essay for Time, the 23-year-old reflected on the pressure she felt to cite mental health as her reason for withdrawing, noting that athletes, like any other professionals, deserve the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny "on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions."

"In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it's not habitual. You wouldn't have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy," she wrote.

"In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me," Osaka continued. "I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones. I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again. So I ask the press for some level of privacy and empathy next time we meet."

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Although she wrote that she has always enjoyed her relationship with the media, the tennis player suggested a "refresh" to the traditional press conference format. 

"I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer," she said. "The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better."

Osaka, who also did not compete in the Berlin WTA 5000 tournament or Wimbledon, suggested a system of yearly "sick days" that excuses athletes from their press commitments without them having to disclose their reasoning. She wrote that such a process would "bring sport in line with the rest of society."

The athlete will be participating in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. She wrote that after taking the time to recharge, "I have had the time to reflect, but also to look forward. I could not be more excited to play in Tokyo. An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true. I hope I can make them proud."

Read Osaka's full Time essay.

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