Athletes and Mental Health: Naomi Osaka Adds to Conversation


“If you type in ‘athlete depression,’ you’re going to find the best athletes in the world being vulnerable and sharing what they’ve been through,” she said. “That is a huge difference. It says that you can be an elite athlete — the best in the world — and you can still experience anxiety.”

But generations of athletes hardly felt they could be as transparent.

The attention to the illness of Jimmy Piersall, a professional baseball player who was admitted to a mental hospital in 1952 and whose illness was later the subject of a book and film, “Fear Strikes Out,” was distinctive because it was so far from the rule at the time.

In high school in the late 1990s, Dr. Houle kept his sessions with a sports psychologist secret because, he recalled Tuesday, he worried that “people would think I had lost it or that I was mentally weak or something like that.” Into the 2010s, even as society became more accepting of mental health struggles, athletes who ultimately chose to detail their health histories often hesitated out of fear that they would be seen as unfit and diminished.

“The stigma is almost increased even further in our sports world because of the idea that weakness is something that you never show, weakness is not a part of being that athlete, of being elite, of being the best,” said Leeann Passaro, who played soccer at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and now works with Ms. Garrick at an advocacy group, the Hidden Opponent, which focuses on well-being in sports.

Ms. Osaka’s announcement, Ms. Passaro said, was particularly notable because she disclosed her illness amid acute trouble.

“Her being in it right now and coming out and saying something is a lot different than the athletes who have said something in reflection,” said Ms. Passaro, who has dealt with anxiety and depression.

Although many tennis players had been reluctant to embrace Ms. Osaka’s choice to avoid reporters at the French Open, which she announced last week, some who remained in the tournament field in Paris said on Tuesday that they respected her decision to explain more about her challenges.