Don’t shame people’s need for mental health breaks


Naomi Osaka knows she shouldn’t have been shamed into publicly explaining her reasons for taking a mental health break, and neither should others.

On Thursday, the four-time Grand Slam winner delved deeper into her decision to prioritize her mental health over her tennis career in a personal essay in Time magazine and also underlined an important aspect of her own experience: People in power didn’t believe she needed a break from tennis, forcing her to defend her decisions by divulging more about her condition than she would have preferred.

“In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my [mental health] symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones,” Osaka wrote. “I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again.”

Mental health experts agree: Osaka was treated poorly, by tennis officials and by fans, and she shouldn’t have had to put her private health information on display to be afforded the space she needed at the time.

“I have no doubt that it took a lot for her to say, ‘I’m going to take these consequences and value my emotional well-being over tens of thousands of dollars,” says Dr. Rheeda Walker, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and professor of psychology at the University of Houston who focuses on Black mental health.

Before Osaka was published in Time, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) swiftly delivered its response to her May announcement on Twitter that she wouldn’t talk to the press during the French Open back then by fining her $15,000. It also, along with the leaders of three other Grand Slam tournaments, threatened to expel Osaka from future tournaments.The 23-year-old later withdrew entirely from French Open.

Osaka isn’t the only public figure who’s been vocal about their declining mental health in 2021. After stepping back from their royal duties, both Meghan Markle and Prince Harry spoke with Oprah Winfrey in March about the lack of support they received from the institution surrounding the British Royal family when they opened up about mental health needs. Osaka notes in her essay that Markle reached out to encourage her after she prioritized her mental health. More recently, Britney Spears broke her near silence on her 13-year-long conservatorship, disclosing that she feels traumatized, depressed, angry, and loses sleep because of the restrictions placed on her life.

When well-known people like Osaka draw a line in the sand around their mental health boundaries, it can give us the courage to do the same, says Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association‘s senior director of practice transformation and quality, who is an expert on stress.

But prioritizing mental health isn’t just in the domain of famous people. The pandemic has given us all an opportunity to reflect deeply on our mental health needs as our work lives collide with our personal ones.

While some people are encouraging when a colleague or family member takes a mental health break, others aren’t as understanding.

Here’s how to follow Osaka’s advice so you can uplift people who make the brave decision to take a break rather than shaming them.

1. Send supportive messages

Encouragement can go a long way — especially for someone who’s gathered the courage to tell people they’re putting their mental health first.

If you’re at a loss for words, you can say something like, “I know this was probably really hard and I’m glad you’re taking this time for yourself,” says Walker.

Like Osaka, your colleague or friend may choose to share their news on social media. Even if you’re not close, affirmation of their decision can help them, not only now, but hopefully encourage them to not wait next time they need a break, says Walker.

2. Acknowledge their strengths and humanity

It can be hard to disentangle our identities from our jobs. Sometimes, they bleed together and we fall into the trap of thinking our self-worth is determined by our productivity.

In addition to commenting on someone’s social media post about their mental health break with an encouraging note, you can also write what you appreciate about that person outside their work, says Bufka. This can help them realize they’re not just their job.

Another way to help someone realize their personal value is to frame their work around their impact, says Walker.

“For a lot of folks their work becomes their identity, ‘I’m a teacher or I’m a nurse,'” says Walker. Instead, a nurse might think of their job’s influence, like helping someone cope with a debilitating condition.

“I do think when people start to think about their identity as more so their impact then they’re less tied to the job and they get more fulfillment because they’re thinking ‘what is it I’m able to achieve or accomplish through this work,'” says Walker.

3. Don’t jump to conclusions

In her Time essay, Osaka asked the press and the tournament officials to abstain from another invasive examination of her mental health.

In that same vein, if you don’t want to shame someone’s leave from work, avoid making assumptions.

“Operate on what you know to be true because the person’s told you or your manager has said but don’t assume anything else is going on,” says Bufka.

Additionally, Walker says to put yourself in someone else’s shoes because it may help slow down or stop you from responding quickly with shaming language.

“If someone says they’re taking a mental health break, then the first thought [should be] ‘wow, I must not begin to know everything that is going on for that person,'” says Walker.

3. Check in

If you feel comfortable or are close with the person, check in with them during their break. It can be as simple as asking if you can text or call them regularly to make sure they’re OK, says Bufka. It might be too much for the person to respond with a message every time. Rather, they can acknowledge your text by “liking” it.

If you live nearby, ask if your friend wants to set up a consistent hangout session, like a walk.

Something that can be so critical for someone struggling with anxiety or depression is regular social contact with people who care about them, says Bufka.

While checking in with someone may seem easy, Walker thinks as a society we don’t do enough of it.

“I think on some level there’s this sense of ‘they’ll be fine.’ We just assume people will figure it out and a lot of times they do,” says Walker. “But everyone needs support from time to time.”

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