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Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Roland Garros – Early intervention framework to respond to athlete mental health

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23 year old Naomi Osaka thanked fans for the support following a statement recently announcing her withdrawal from Roland Garros one day after she was fined $15,000 by the French Open and warned that she could face expulsion from the tournament following a decision to not speak to the press during the tournament because of mental health issues . Her intention was to skip her media obligations during Roland Garros because of the effects of her interactions with the press had on her mental health .

“This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” Osaka wrote on social media. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.”

In her withdrawal statement the fourth time grand slam champion said she suffered bouts of depression “ Anyone who knows me knows I’m introverted and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I am often wearing earphones as that helps dull my social anxiety “ says Osaka

She added, “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while their down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.” Osaka said that she would be accepting the fines that came with her choice, though she added that she hoped that organizations will rethink that mandate “ If the organization thinks they can just keep saying , ‘ do press or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the centerpiece of their co-operation then I just gotta laugh” she concluded “ Anyways I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity “

For athletes like Osaka, widespread support came from across the world, for many an incredibly brave decision to speak up about her mental health issues due to the level of stigma attached to it. The current “state of play” in supporting elite athletes mental health and wellbeing has centered mostly on building health literacy or awareness of the signs of ill- mental health amongst athletes. Such awareness is necessary. What sporting organizations have to look at is a new model of intervention and outline the backbone of a comprehensive mental health framework to promote athlete mental health and wellbeing and respond to the need of athletes who are already at risk of developing or already experiencing mental health symptoms. Early detection and intervention is essential in elite sporting context. Such approaches build cultures that acknowledge that an athletes mental health is more important that their physical health needs and both are likely to contribute to optimizing the athletes overall wellbeing in conjunction with performance excellence.

How are elite athletes affected by mental illness ? Meta-analytic reviews indicated that many elite athletes will experience broadly comparable rates of mental ill-health relative to general population in relation to anxiety, depression , post-traumatic stress and sleep disorders. While participation in sports has many benefits, the very nature of a competition can provoke, augment or expose psychological issues in athletes. Certain personality traits can aid in either athletic success or failure. Environmental conditions and travel may also be especially salient for the mental health of athletes as they often encounter disruptive logistical issues associated with travel, such as a lack of adaptive sport facilities and even sleeping conditions.

In the case of elite athletes, this includes the ‘microsystem’ of coaches, teammates (where appropriate) and family or loved ones. The wider sporting environment (e.g. the athlete’s sport, its rules and governing body) forms the exosystem, while the role of national and international sporting bodies and the media and broader society form the macrosystem.

Early intervention is necessary in instances where the performance and life demands placed on an athlete exceed their ability to cope (i.e. major career-threatening injury or significant life stress). Structured clinical interventions for mild to moderate mental ill-health are typically indicated at this phase and should ideally be provided ‘in-house’ by mental health clinicians, such as sports or clinical psychologists or psychiatrists, or medical staff where appropriate. Despite the exponential increase in research and medical treatment to an athlete’s mental wellbeing, treatment gaps will always remain.

Evaluating the efficacy of mental health prevention and intervention programs via controlled trials is urgently needed.

Source: Fatima Said


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