Tennis star Naomi Osaka has experienced the highs and lows of being a public figure.
Since turning professional at 15, Osaka has become a household name among sports fans. She has achieved four Grand Slam titles and been ranked as the top tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association. In 2020, she won the Associated Press “Female Athlete of the Year” award.
But the Japanese star, 24, has long grappled with anxiety and depression. These mental health issues have affected her ability to carry out workplace obligations, like participating in press conferences with the media.
When Osaka voluntarily withdrew from the 2021 French Open to preserve and prioritize her mental health, she received backlash from the media.
“There can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes,” Osaka wrote in Time. “Each of us as humans is going through something on some level.”
In May, Osaka partnered with workplace wellness platform Modern Health to work to reduce stigma associated with mental illness. She will serve as the chief community health advocate of Modern Health’s community impact program.
“Naomi’s bravery in publicly sharing her own struggles has already helped to destigmatize and reframe the conversation around mental health,” said Alyson Watson, chief executive officer of Modern Health. “Together we have the same mission—to decrease stigma and increase access to care so that people can get the help they need when they need it.”
Watson said the partnership with Osaka will also aim to improve diversity in psychology: Osaka and Modern Health plan to identify and partner with organizations that train and empower Black mental health caregivers, who represent just 4 percent of psychologists in the U.S.
“We hope that sharing the experiences and stories of high-profile athletes such as Naomi will encourage others to speak out and approach [mental health] care more comfortably if they need it,” Watson said.
This collaboration comes as organizations are raising awareness for mental illness. In May, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) partnered with the Campaign for Disability Employment at the Department of Labor to promote mental-health-friendly workplaces.
Athletes Speaking Out
Osaka isn’t the first athlete to raise awareness for mental illness.
In April 2020, NFL quarterback Dak Prescott revealed that his older brother had died by suicide. The Dallas Cowboys star said the death of his brother, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, caused him to experience depression.
“All throughout this quarantine and this offseason, I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before,” Prescott told “In Depth with Graham Bensinger.” “And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression. I didn’t know necessarily what I was going through, to say the least, and hadn’t been sleeping at all.”
In April 2021, retired gymnast Aly Raisman discussed how she addresses her mental health after retiring from gymnastics.
“I’ve realized that when I’m really stressed-out, when I’m having a lot of anxiety, I’m often really hard on myself and it is exhausting,” Raisman told CBS News. “I’m sure anyone who’s watching who can relate to experiencing some type of trauma or anxiety can recognize just how exhausting it can be. So I’ve learned the importance of taking time for myself each day and prioritizing my mental health.”
In September 2021, swimmer Michael Phelps talked about his struggles with mental illness during a conversation with SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021.
For years, the former Olympian dealt with severe depression that caused him to contemplate suicide. He credits therapy for saving his life and implores people experiencing mental health problems to seek help.
“As a male athlete, I always thought it was a sign of weakness if I showed I was being vulnerable. It’s not weakness,” he said. “If we’re injured, they’re going to fix our broken bones, but if we’re mentally struggling, we have to get help and we have to get it in safe places.”
Other athletes who have opened up about their mental health difficulties include NBA player Ben Simmons, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, figure skater Gracie Gold and tennis star Serena Williams.
Watson said the strength and courage of public figures like Osaka in talking about their psychological struggles can help destigmatize mental illness and inspire others to seek the professional assistance they need.
“The pervasive narrative in sports is that the most successful athletes exhibit strength, power and impenetrable mental resilience,” Watson said. “But I believe Naomi’s bravery set the stage for other athletes by normalizing conversations about the mental health toll that accompanies fierce competition.”