OPINION: Naomi Osaka Prioritized Her Mental Health. It’s Time We Followed Suit

by Marcus Harrison Green

(This article is co-published with The Seattle Times) 

On the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month, in May, I hooted louder for Naomi Osaka than I ever have for any athlete, and she was nowhere near a tennis court. 

Despite being well-positioned to earn her fifth Grand Slam title, Osaka prioritized her mental health and withdrew from the French Open on Monday. 

Her decision came after she was fined by tournament organizers and criticized by media personalities for refusing to speak with the press. In her refusal, she had cited her concerns over how those interactions might impact her depression and anxiety. 

Many won’t view her actions in the same courageous light as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee against police brutality. Osaka hasn’t lost her tennis career. But she did elevate a much-needed conversation about mental health in this country. 

In 2019, nearly 52 million Americans suffered from mental illnesses but only 44.8% received any type of treatment for them, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Dealing with an untreated mental illness means you’re more likely to attempt suicide, develop a substance abuse disorder, or engage with law enforcement.

Per a OnePoll study, 62% of us dread our boss’s contempt should we ask for time off to recalibrate our mental health, despite the Family and Medical Leave Act explicitly allowing us to.

I understand why.

Three years ago, fear of jeopardizing my career nearly stopped me from telling my editor at The Seattle Times that I needed an extended break. I’d been employed there less than a year. 

I broke down in tears in her office. I’d already broken down mentally weeks prior.

I expected her ridicule. She instead offered her support. With her blessing, I temporarily relocated to Fort Worth, Texas, to recoup.

There, I could walk the streets anonymously with no obligation to do anything but heal. 

It provided the perfect sanctuary for a mind that became a boomerang of torment. My brain ceaselessly shrieked that I was unlovable, unworthy and grotesque.

The loop of self-devaluation was one of the reasons I contemplated suicide on more than one occasion, including the night I walked out of my editor’s office.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I felt I’d let her and my entire community down. In my mind, all the naysayers who believed a Black man without a traditional journalism background could never cut it at a big-city newspaper had been proven correct. I plummeted into depression.

As I obsessed on death, memories of my Aunt Sheila came into view. Snared by depression, she’d taken her own life when I was 4, leaving a daughter and other grieving loved ones.

That tragedy stays with my family to this day. Not wanting to cause them another one, I became determined to seek help.

Unfortunately, when you’re recovering from a mental health crisis there’s no typical journey. You’re restricted to what you can do, including educating yourself about your condition and finding the right doctor, therapist and medication.  

After that, your recovery is anyone’s guess. Perhaps a week will pass, maybe a month, or a year.

All you can do is wait for the poetry to return inside of you, supplanting the stubborn emptiness that’s there. 

But if you’re lucky, all those people you were afraid to tell about your struggles will be there to remind you of the resiliency you’ve shown in surviving adversity in your life.

They show you that admitting your mental health struggles will never equate to inadequacy. 

I wish I could tell you that the years since that Fort Worth trip have stopped my mind from whispering suggestions of suicide, or that my depression never becomes so debilitating that it sometimes takes days to write an article that should take 30 minutes. 

What I can tell you is the community of support consisting of friends, family, therapists and colleagues has made facing those challenges manageable. There are no perfect days but there are better ones.

Honesty is the one thing that publicly acknowledging your mental health struggles will guarantee you.

And our society is literally dying for the truth.

Mental health resources

If you or someone you know needs support for mental health, here’s where to find help.

Crisis Connections: Covers King County and surrounding areas with five programs focused on serving the emotional and physical needs of people across Washington state. Call 206-461-3222.

Washington 211: Free referral and informational help line that connects people to health and human services, available 24/7. Call 211.

Washington Recovery Helpline: 24-hour crisis-intervention and referral assistance for substance abuse, mental health and gambling. Call 866-789-1511.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: National network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-8255.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: The nation’s largest grassroots mental-health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

Mental Health America: Nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans.

Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced firsthand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

Featured image is attributed to Rob Prange under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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