How can Naomi Osaka's mental health struggle can be a lesson for us all? NC psychiatrist weighs in

Joel Brown Image
Monday, May 31, 2021
How Naomi Osaka's mental health struggle can be a lesson for us all
The tennis world was stunned when four-time Grand Slam champion and the world's number two player suddenly pulled out of the French Open.

The tennis world was stunned, Monday, when four-time Grand Slam champion and the world's number two player, Naomi Osaka, suddenly pulled out of the French Open.

Local mental health professionals like Dr. Mehul Mankad are applauding Osaka's bravery to be vulnerable on a world stage about her struggle with mental health.

"I think that serves as a touchstone for so many of that if Naomi Osaka, or others, can talk about their struggles -- then maybe what I'm going through is not bizarre or something I should be ashamed of," said Mankad, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Alliance Health.

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Osaka tweeted that she's suffered long bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open; that she's introverted and is often seen wearing headphones during public practices to dull her social anxiety. She said speaking to the global media often brought "huge waves of anxiety."

Social anxiety is one of most-common anxiety disorders people experience. But it can come in multiple forms -- from mild to crippling.

"Fear in situations where they're being judged. They're worried about embarrassing themselves or humiliating themselves," Mankad said. He says it's very possible for someone like a pro athlete used to performing on camera to have difficulty with on-the-job tasks like news conferences or even meeting with the press.

"People are complicated and there are many layers to everybody," Mankad said.

Four months ago, Osaka made news here at home when she bought an ownership stake in the women's pro Triangle soccer team, the North Carolina Courage. The public knew her as a dominant force on the tennis court. But it did not mean we really knew her; or that she dominated every aspect of her life.

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Dr. Mankad said it's important not to compare our "insides" to other people's "outsides."

"We kind need to take a step back and say the next time somebody else doesn't live up to my expectations, maybe I should give them a break and try to understand them in their context," Mankad said.

As the tournament continues on the clay courts at Roland Garros, the world's best now serving compassion and understanding.

"I feel for Naomi. I wish I could give her a hug," said 3-time French Open winner Serena Williams. "You just have to let her handle this the way she has to in the best way she thinks she can."

As Osaka leaves France to regroup and rebuild, Dr. Mankad says there are a lot of options for anyone dealing with forms of social anxiety: It starts with getting evaluated; Counseling is key; And often medication can help turn down the volume on some of those crippling feelings.