Naomi Osaka’s Powerful Message About Taking Care of Your Mental Health

“It’s OK to Not Be OK.”

By: Dominique Michelle Astorino

One of the biggest buzzwords in the mental health space lately has been “boundaries.” 

Fortunately, this trend isn’t a vacuous one, rooted in marketing and devoid of substance — The collective is having a huge moment and waking us up to the idea that we have NOT had good boundaries, particularly when it comes to our career.

Naomi Osaka’s powerful open letter, aptly titled “It’s OK to Not Be OK,” is a declaration of boundaries — establishing a firm line between her professional life and her inner world. The essay was published in TIME this past month, and it’s a sage take for the 23-year-old athlete, with a realization that takes many of us much longer to come to. It really *is* okay to not be okay.

Naomi Osaka’s Mental Health Journey

For context, ICYMI, Naomi Osaka is the number one female tennis player in the world, and at a young age is already under an enormous amount of pressure. Expected to be an Olympic champion this year, she’s had world-stage events leading up to Tokyo 2020 in her home country of Japan. One of those events was the French Open (a major tennis tournament), which is where things started to heat up — off the court. 

Dealing with a bout of depression, Naomi told officials she needed to forego a press conference before the French Open, explaining further (to British Vogue) that “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

This decision to protect her mental health came at a cost — a $15,000 cost — in the form of a fine from the Grand Slam tournaments. The organizations stated this was a matter of “fairness.”

After issuing an open apology on Instagram, Naomi made the decision to drop out of the competition. Shortly thereafter, she withdrew from Wimbledon as well, in order to take time for herself ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games (and a few weeks after that, she won “best female athlete at the ESPYs). 

A Power Move For Women, Boundaries, and Mental Health

What may seem on the surface to be a retreat was actually a serious power move: Naomi’s withdrawal from these events arguably could’ve cost the organizations money, as the draw to see the world’s best tennis player is definitely a source of revenue for the league. She also made something else inextricably clear: her mental health comes first, and she won’t be threatened or intimidated by the powers that be, fines, or any other repercussions when she chooses to prioritize her wellbeing. 

This is a big deal — for all women who are often afraid to put themselves first and frequently subject to intimidation and bullying. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to an institution, particularly when it could jeopardize your career. 

It’s hard to set boundaries, especially within our careers; work-life balance seems more myth than methodology. We learn the pythagorean theorem in school, but not how to emotionally and mentally navigate the work world so as to protect our wellness. Fortunately, when events like this happen on the world stage, with the spotlight of the media, we can learn and grow as we go. It’s clear that Naomi Osaka is setting a precedent for all of us: your wellbeing is more precious than any trophy, prize, paycheck, or accolade.

Normalizing The Conversation About Mental Health 

Another gift she gave us through her example was once again normalizing the topic of mental health, including depression and anxiety. When successful, public-facing athletes like Naomi (and Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and more) speak openly about their mental health struggles, it starts to break down the stigmatized, honestly horrific view on mental illness society has tricked us into believing. 

Over 20% of American adults are managing an anxiety disorder — that’s roughly how many people get the flu each year. Close to 300 Million people deal with depression around the world. It’s so common, yet still so taboo and stigmatized, so these messages from role models in the athletic space help the collective to realize that success and mental health struggles are anything but mutually exclusive. We all deal with it to some extent, and the sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we can heal.

She also started a fantastic conversation for the athletes, too — how far are we willing to push these individuals for entertainment, for revenue, for sport? How can we run these individuals into the ground with press conferences and media engagements, training, photoshoots, competition and more, without letting them take time to recalibrate their brain? “In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” she said in TIME. “I can’t imagine another profession where a consistent attendance record (I have missed one press conference in my seven years on tour) would be so harshly scrutinized.” 

How Mental Health Boundaries Can Help Us Succeed

She has shown that she knows when to say ‘when.’ She knows when enough is enough. 

We can all learn so much from this; it’s a major check-in with how each of us are doing with our minds, our work, and our emotional and physical wellbeing. And while mental healthcare isn’t simply a means to a success-oriented end, it certainly helps to know that by taking better care of ourselves, we can perform better in our public lives — whether we’re professional athletes, simply professionals, or even parents. Naomi has shown that setting a boundary is crucial to mental health hygiene. With the Olympics starting on July 23, we could see those boundaries pay off for Naomi Osaka.