Imagine if Naomi Osaka had an extreme stutter and could not do press conferences, or asked not to because of the stutter, it is highly unlikely that she would have been fined and threatened with disqualification from the French Open. It is also unlikely that she would not have received some of the abuse she has been subjected to by some on social media and prominent journalists. Indeed, she would have received a barrage of sympathy.
Imagine if Naomi Osaka had an ongoing leg injury or something else physical that required immediate treatment after each match and which needed others to adjust their schedules to work around her problem. It would be fine and the tournament organisers would most likely have been more than happy to help one of the best tennis players in the world so that she could continue to play.
The above did not happen because she was fined for not attending her first press conference, the pressure from all angles grew to an extent that it would have been suffocating for someone who was suffering from no mental health problems at all and she had no choice but to withdraw from the tournament.
Her crime is to suffer from an illness that affects 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, an illness that is suffered by more people in the world than any other and yet she is given no flexibility at all to manage it the way she sees fit.
I heard someone on a podcast say the other day that if she wants to be a top sports star she has to accept the commitments that come with it and that if she won’t she should give up her sport.
That is an appalling comment in so many ways because it presumes that she has a choice over how bad her illness is, it presumes that she should put herself through the agony of a situation that makes her illness worse and, perhaps most worryingly, there is not a hint of sympathy.
Too many people believe that if someone talks about their mental health problems they are either looking for sympathy or jumping on a bandwagon, and that is just so wrong.
Too many people do not understand the complexity of mental health and the huge variety of conditions that can affect people. They see a person in a straightjacket in an old asylum and that is all they can consider to be a genuine mental health issue.
Too many people, almost everyone, cannot see mental health problems and if they cannot see them, they are not happening. That is how they think and to this day the ‘you have to just get on with it’ attitude is prevalent.
The debacle at the French Open has proved that we have a long way to go in dealing with mental health, and we have much further to go than even the most positive of us believed. Naomi Osaka should be given huge credit for stepping up and battling her illness, and those in charge of her sport need to step up and show what can be done, and so do the rest of us.