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Tennis star Naomi Osaka joins other athletes to champion mental health

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open last week and took a break from the sport to address her mental health. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open last week and took a break from the sport to address her mental health. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

June 8 (UPI) -- Naomi Osaka's sudden withdrawal from the French Open and other athletes' similar decisions to prioritize their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic are creating greater demand for more psychological resources to help them.

Often referred to as an "unseen injury" by doctors and athletes, anxiety and depression won't show up on injury reports, but often impact elite sports stars on a much deeper level than turf toe or an ACL tear.

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"The stigma has fallen," Jarrod Spencer, a sports psychologist based in Bethlehem, Pa., told UPI on Monday.

"Mental health's time has come. The pandemic has revealed to you, me and every person out there just how much we struggle emotionally at times. ... [Sports organizations] are no longer paying lip service and saying 'Yeah, it's important.'

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"They are actually making systemic changes and putting funding in place so mental health is appropriately managed."

Osaka said she "would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly" when she announced her exit from the Grand Slam on May 31 on social media. She said she had difficulty coping with "long bouts of depression" and "huge waves of anxiety."

Hundreds of athletes, including Serena Williams and Michael Phelps, reached out to the tennis star amid the news that she was taking a hiatus to take care of herself.

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Praises Osaka

Phelps praised Osaka on CNN for using her platform to encourage others to seek help. The 23-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming announced his struggles with ADHD and depression in 2017. He said he contemplated suicide in 2012, but then addressed his mental wellness with professionals.

"It's pretty incredible and powerful to see Noami use her platform and take this time for herself," Phelps said.

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Williams disclosed in 2011, 2015 and 2018 that she dealt with depression. The NBA's DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love and the NFL's Dak Prescott recently opened up about their mental battles.

"What I've already seen in the last week is significant systemic change coming," said Spencer, who works with several professional and collegiate sports teams.

"The conversations are being had saying 'We all knew we had to handle this differently, but what are we going to do differently and how can we more be more empathetic and supportive?'"

Tennis' four Grand Slam tournaments said in a May 31 statement that they "commend" Osaka for "sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling," adding that the tournaments plan to "advance mental health and well-being through further actions."

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The ATP and WTA announced plans last year to provide players with additional mental health resources and not focus just on physical health.

"This really started with athletes being forthcoming, being willing and feeling safe to openly disclose mental health concerns and how it relates not only to performance, but their sense of self on their team and with teammates and coaches," said Adam Gallenberg, a sports psychologist with Premier Sports Psychology in Edina, Minn.

"I think teams that have really taken steps to provide that kind of healthcare have really seen a huge shift in mental health awareness in general."

In 2019, the NFL announced improvements to its mental health infrastructure. Its plan required each team to appoint a pain management specialist. The league also formed a mental health and wellness committee and mandated that each team retain a behavioral health team clinician.

Last week, the Washington Football Team hired psychologist Barbara Roberts as the team's first full-time director of wellness and clinical services. She is one of just four full-time clinicians with a doctorate in psychology employed by an NFL franchise.

MLB provides a 24/7 hotline for players to speak with professionals and offers free counseling, in addition to other resources. Each team has at least one person onboard trained to address players' mental and emotional health.

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Increased attention

The coronavirus pandemic led sports leagues to the increase in mental health resources. In January, the NBA told its teams to provide more education and awareness about mental health for players.

The NBA also provided additional technological and physical resources for players to assist with mental health when the league restarted its season amid the pandemic last year in Orlando, Fla. The NBA previously required teams to offer access to mental health professionals.

Insufficient awareness, experts said, was responsible for a previous lack of mental health resources within sports. But like the now-widespread concussion protocols, new systems are under construction to address the next trend of invisible injuries.

Spencer said the responsibility to address mental health for athletes falls on parents at the high school level, but transfers onto colleges at the next stage.

Many professional athletes prefer to use hand-picked professionals to address their mental health, but Spencer believes leagues and teams are responsible for providing additional resources.

"If you are any organization today handling athletes and you aren't able to answer the question 'What are you guys doing for mental health?' there is the problem," Spencer said.

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