Naomi Osaka, carrying her equipment, leaving a venue with her name in banners on both sides of the walkway.

After prioritizing her own sanity, Naomi Osaka is one of the athletes helping to bring mental health to the forefront of athletic and health conversations (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

By Malcolm Lemmons
Special to the AFRO

There are no “ifs, ands or buts about it:” 23 year-old Naomi Osaka is a once-in-a-generation tennis star. The accolades speak for themselves. In the past several years, she’s been consistently ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association and is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles. She is also four-time Grand Slam singles champion and one of the most marketable athletes on the planet. Despite her outward success, she recently showed the entire world that she isn’t a superhuman like so many believe. She’s just like you and I.

In June of this year, Osaka pulled out from the French Open citing challenges with her mental health (anxiety and depression). “Though the tennis press has always been kind to me,” she wrote, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.” Many athletes and brands from around the world praised and supported her decision, but there were also people who doubted her sincerity.

Some responded, “How can she possibly be suffering from mental health issues? She has money, fame and success.” A lot of what is said does have truth to it. She seems to have everything anyone could ever want in life. Though history shows us that no matter how successful someone is, they still aren’t exempt from facing mental health struggles or suffering from mental illness.

Athletes such as Michael Phelps, Ronda Rousey, Imani McGee-Stafford and more recently Kevin Love and Dak Prescott have been open about their battles with mental illness. Through their confessions, the conversations around what mental health is and why it’s important have slowly increased over time.

According to Athletes for Hope, a non-profit that aims to educate, encourage and assist athletes in their efforts to engage with community and charitable causes, among professional athletes, up to 35% of them suffer from a mental health crisis which can manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression and anxiety. Of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% of all of them seek help.

(Photo courtesy of Instagram @naomiosaka)

With Osaka being the latest athlete to speak out, it finally feels like the perception has taken a major turn in the right direction.

Being a former athlete myself, I noticed that from a young age many of us have been taught not to show emotions or weakness in or out of sports. Coaches, and even parents, have constantly encouraged a culture of mental toughness and indestructibility as if we, as athletes, were robots, not human. In recent years, we’ve started to see that culture slowly subside. Aside from notable athletes talking about their experiences, Gen-Z has also been in the driver seat to effect change with them being a more progressive and transparent generation largely in part to social media.

Even major mental health/fitness companies such as Headspace, Calm, Coa, Talkspace and Better Health have peaked in popularity through the pandemic as more people experienced stress, depression and anxiety.

In the past, I also had my own personal mental health challenges during my athletic career and even after I retired. All of the things I went through influenced me to start a platform at the intersection of athletes and mental health called Athletes Unheard with a mission to amplify conversations around mental health in sports. We’re currently producing a docu-series called the “Undeterred,” where we are highlighting athletes who have faced incredible mental obstacles trying to pursue their sport at the highest level. So whether it’s athletes and entertainers, or corporations and non-profit organizations, mental health is becoming much more of a priority globally.

The bottom line is that we need to understand that mental health is real and just as important as physical health. Going to therapy, meditating or taking other steps to improve your mental health doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or flawed. In fact, it’s courageous and inspiring to someone else who might be going through something.

If we can go to the gym to work on our bodies, then why don’t we take a more proactive approach to bettering our minds as well? Whatever you might be facing, the important thing is to realize that you’re not the first and you won’t be the last, so don’t feel like you need to go through it alone.

The movement around mental health and wellness is trending upward. Being around the space the past year or so has made me more optimistic for what’s to come. And with star athletes like Naomi Osaka coming out to speak their truth, there’s no doubt in my mind that the future will be brighter for the next generation to come.

Malcolm Lemmons is a retired professional basketball player and founder of “Athletes Unheard,” an organization and platform dedicated to amplifying conversations around mental health in sports.

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