Waging War Against The Stigma Of Mental Health: From Naomi Osaka To Simone Biles

stigma of mental health osaka and biles juxtaposed
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In June of 2021, star tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open citing mental health issues as the reason behind her decision.

A month later, gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles followed suit, compromising her chances of winning more Olympic medals at this year’s Tokyo games.

The two athletes have a few things in common. For starters, they’re close in age. Osaka is 23 and Biles is 24.

They’re also women of color who’ve fallen prey to the media’s brutal scrutiny whenever they compete in their respective athletic fields.

But most importantly, both athletes have shined a much-needed light on the global stigma attached to mental health.

Their withdrawals from high-stakes competitions highlighted the importance of “me-time” — a concept that busy professionals often fail to internalize.

For Osaka and Biles, taking time off to improve their mental health became paramount. This is confounding at surface level: they’re such powerhouses in their professions, you wouldn’t expect their mental healths to be in jeopardy.

This brings us to yet another thing they have in common: Osaka and Biles deeply understand that their A games would look more like Cs and Ds without proper peace of mind.

olympic rings sign in neon

PROFESSION VS. EQUANIMITY

There’s a lesson to learn here. And this goes for not only the world of competitive sports but for all other walks in life:

Profession should never outweigh equanimity.

And yet, Osaka’s decision to withdraw from tennis matches to focus on her mental health was lambasted by officials of all four Grand Slam tournaments — Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the U.S. Open, and the French Open.

She would face fines up to $15,000, these officials warned, if she kept avoiding speaking to the media; the same entity that often distorts the news itself, whose goal is to trend online, increase readership, and thereby increase company revenue.

This blatant disregard for the personal wellbeing of athletes, celebrities, politicians (the list goes on) serves as Exhibit A in the long-fought case of Humanity Vs. Mental Health Stigma. 

To be clear, media outlets aren’t the only culprits. There are plenty of companies, organizations, and regular people who would disparage others for their struggles in the mental health department.

But as you’ll soon find out, there are prominent mental health crusaders who use their voices for good.

Thankfully, they bring awareness to the issue of deteriorating mental health — one that hangs by a thin thread in the wake of a global pandemic.

mural hand in hand multicolor

MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATES

Osaka and Biles aren’t the only wellness advocates who’ve used their celebrity as a weapon against the stigma attached to mental illness. And they’re certainly not pioneers of the less-talked-about subject of mental health awareness.

Take it from Glenn Close and Oprah Winfrey — a pair of fierce mental health crusaders who’ve denounced the stigma surrounding mental health consistently.

But Osaka’s and Biles’ timing is crucial. After all, the world has now transitioned into a collective, post-pandemic society that’s under constant threat of COVID’s pesky Delta variant.

And just how unrelenting is this variant, you might ask?

Well, dear reader, as unrelenting as Kanye West’s pursuit of the US presidency.

So yeah. In case you haven’t heard: COVID’s not going anywhere. At least not anytime soon.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider why there hasn’t been a male celebrity or athlete mentioned in this article yet. Not one dude who’s spoken up recently against the stigma of mental health.

Don’t get me wrong: if you ask these men (or better yet, if you ask his holiness the Dalai Lama at his temple in Tibet), they’ll probably say, “humbug, QWERTYdelight! We are very outspoken about the stigma attached to mental health. How dare you make wild insinuations about our viewpoints just because we’re not speaking up now!”

To which we here at QWERTYdelight would reply something like: “You blasted men! We aren’t insinuating that you’re not speaking up. We know that you’re not speaking up and are therefore passing judgments, not ‘wild insinuations.'”

This isn’t to say that men aren’t vocal at all about mental health stigma. I’m sure (or hopeful?) that more men will speak out against the stigma of mental health in the coming months.

But unless you’re a man, you’ll only gain a vague understanding of a little something called “toxic masculinity” — a notion rooted in “manliness” where boys are groomed for greatness (ie. dominance) at an early age and are taught to suppress their emotions rather than express or embrace them.

I’d like to submit this toxic tragedy as Exhibit B in the egregious case of Humanity Vs. Mental Health.

With toxic masculinity poisoning our young men, how can we expect them to advocate equanimity?

woman silhouette holding megaphone

WHY IS MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA A “THING?”

I often cite mental health sources from medical journals in the UK because I find that people in the UK are more in tune with mindfulness and self-awareness practices than people in the US. Blimey!

(I can be entirely wrong about this, so don’t shoot me.)

According to the Mental Health Foundation based in Scotland — the birthplace of kilts, the Loch Ness Monster, and, of course, Sean Connery — there are at least two main reasons why people with mental health problems are discriminated against.

The first has to do with stereotypes. That is, “some believe [that] people with mental health problems are dangerous,” to quote the Foundation.

But the real zinger is that people who suffer consistently from mental health illnesses and disorders are at a higher risk of being attacked or harming themselves than hurting others.1

This goes against the grain of mental illness as an impetus for violence and bad behavior. This is simply not true.

Mass shooters, rapists, and other criminals aren’t always “chemically unbalanced,” nor are their mental illnesses always to blame.

One could instead blame lax government policies that grant citizens easy access to semi-automatic rifles, or health insurance companies that reap profits by perpetuating the opioid crises.

The second reason why mental health stigma is a pervasive force to be reckoned with concerns the media.

“Media reports often link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives.”2

Damn you, Fox News. Damn you to hell!

To reiterate, media outlets love to portray people who suffer from mental illnesses as “nut jobs,” “mental cases,” or “bat shit crazies” with a natural taste for debauchery.

Rise above it, dear reader. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Especially if it’s fake news.

You hear that, Fox News?!

busy press conference

HOW TO FIGHT THE STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH

Take your cue from anyone who’s been outspoken against mental health stigma with the passion of a Jesus Christ apostle.

Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Close, Mark Manson, Prince Harry. Heck, even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no stranger to depression.

You can also support an organization that shines a spotlight on the stigma of mental health. This can be a Suicide Prevention Organization, for example.

Sweeping mental health stigma under the rug lest it threatens to destroy your reputation, career, or family ties won’t help you or your loved ones overcome potential health challenges should the Delta variant spiral out of control soon.

On the contrary, locking mental health stigma in the closet and throwing away the key is a surefire way to bottle up your unresolved feelings and become a ticking timebomb of raw emotion.

So, to avoid a messy explosion, be sure to prioritize your mental health.

If you’ve suffered through anxiety and depression, don’t be afraid to tell your story. Speak openly with others about your mental health struggles, but choose those who will listen unconditionally and with an open heart. Someone will listen empathetically.

Granted, it might take a certain degree of introspection before you’re ready to talk. You might need to look inwardly and check in with yourself to pinpoint exactly what it is you’re feeling and why. (To learn more about how you can achieve this, check out QWERTYdelight’s Mindfulness and Self-awareness categories in the Archive.)

It would also behoove you to set an intention while practicing mindfulness and self-awareness.

In other words, commit to some much-needed me-time. When you’re in a quiet space, away from distractions, pressure, and everything else that takes a toll on your mental health, begin the healing process by admitting to yourself that it’s okay not to be okay.

If there’s an inner-saboteur within you pointing out your shortcomings on a metaphorical chalkboard with a metaphorical ruler, then tape this annoying saboteur’s mouth shut.

And while you’re at it, feel free to silence all other external forces that downplay the stigma attached to mental health. That goes for the naysayers, the fear-mongers, the echo chambers, and the media circus to name a few.

Finally, read QWERTYdelight’s Archive for over 50 wellness articles (and counting!) These will help you slay another day on your way to being gay (as in, happy 😀 ).

  1. Mental Health Foundation. Stigma and discrimination. Updated July 7, 2021. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stigma-and-discrimination
  2. Mental Health Foundation. Stigma and discrimination. Updated July 7, 2021. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stigma-and-discrimination
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