I really ought to know better. In 2021, I sometimes trick myself into believing that certain topics of conversations have come a long way. Whether it’s discussing unconscious biases or White privilege, I imagine that some people get it while others are slowly understanding these viewpoints.
Over the past five years, I have definitely felt that conversations about mental health have improved. For the UK, the invisible chains of silence, shame and judgement were helped to be removed when Princes William and Harry spoke openly about their own mental health struggles. Regardless of recent events between the two brothers, that moment told us that it’s okay to not be okay.
So, it’s with dismay to read the blacklash that tennis player Naomi Osaka received after deciding to not speak to journalists at the French Open, which has led to her pulling out of the tournament to protect her mental health. Such negative coverage makes me question if we’re all really trying to better understand mental health and if so, then by how much?
Mental health is something I have struggled with since my teenage years. It has impacted members of my family, including my aunt who was bi-polar and my uncle who suffers from schizophrenia. My own personal challenges have led me down very dark paths, of which I will talk about one day, so I have a lot of empathy for Osaka.
Mental health is a highly complex matter. After years of therapy I still cannot explain why some days I simply do not want to be here. I cannot explain why my brain tells me things that are either untrue or vastly exaggerated and no amount of rationality will convince me otherwise. Nor can I explain why, when I go out, my social anxiety increases so much that it plunges me into despair, changing my mood as quickly as clicking my fingers, convincing me that I do not belong at the social event I am attending. We won’t discuss the endless disapproval stories my brain tells me about every inch of my body.
When these incidents take place, it feels like a mist of sadness that only I experience. It can’t be seen, heard or tasted, which means I can’t visually present it to others. If people suspect I am feeling low, I often reassure them by saying “I’m fine,” whilst battling the feelings of guilt and worry that quickly supersede my sadness. I HATE the idea of bringing anyone’s mood down.
Describing a mental health crisis to those who are lucky enough to not suffer can easily be misunderstood. That’s why I understand why Osaka didn’t properly articulate herself when she initially announced her decision to not talk to any press. When I try, I can only touch the fringes of hopelessness that swirls inside my mind. Often, I have been told to be “more positive’, which does not help. In fact, let’s be clear. People with mental health issues want nothing more than to be ‘more positive’, but they struggle to be. Trust me.
Such phrases, along with many other pointless ones, only force people to suffer alone in fear of their experiences being trivialised or dismissed. Along with shame for feeling this way in the first place, most people decide to carry on and cope the best way they can.
This is why Osaka’s decision should be praised not scorned. I find it fruitless when journalists justify their contempt by comparing Osaka’s decision to previous tennis players who have been forced to speak to the press after losing vital matches. They. Just. Don’t. Get. It. Osaka isn’t worried about losing or even winning, the real battle is inside her mind and she has chosen to not play out the fight in front of the world’s media. Yes, it would have made headlines, but it is Osaka who would be left to pick up the pieces.
Possibly, some lack empathy for Osaka because she’s rich, and anyone with a substantial amount of wealth “shouldn’t complain”. Of course, there are times when those who are financially fortunate should count their blessings, but this is not one of them. As a highly competitive athlete who is at the top of her game, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Osaka to withdraw. Plus, she now has to contend with the over-inducing anxiety of worrying about what the world now thinks of her. By simply refusing to continue to dance to robotic corporations’ beats, Osaka was nearly demonised.
It’s hard to fathom that people and the media are upset because Osaka has put herself first? That she has put her humanity before playing a role that appeases her management and anyone else who makes money each time she plays a match.
Once again, I can relate to the importance of people accepting my own humanity. Black women are often viewed through narrow lenses and one of them is the expectation to be ‘strong’ all of the time. Regardless of what life throws at us, we are expected to have unwavering strength and to combat challenges without complaining or even sighing. The moment we throw up our hands and say enough, we live in fear of being labelled difficult or having an attitude. Such beliefs dehumanise us. As if Black women don’t need love, tenderness, care and respect just like any other women from different ethnicities.
Black British women are more prone to experience common mental health problems in comparison to White women and one has to ask if this is because wider society expects Black women to weather the storms of life alone and not complain when it all becomes too much?
For Osaka, I hope her decision has set a trend for Black women and anyone else to be brave enough to say “no” when they know their mental health is at risk. In doing so, you’re not weak. In fact, taking the necessary steps to fight your inner demons makes you stronger for you and not because the world expects you to be.
Without a doubt, Osaka will return to the tennis court. I hope she does so with a renewed energy to not only beat her opponents, but to join the fight to combat ignorance and spread wisdom so those who continue to suffer poor mental health in silence will know they’re not alone.