Mental illness in athletes on the global scale

December 1, 2022


Courtesy of The New York Times

Naomi Osaka has raised concerns over her career about mental health in athletes.

It was as if Naomi Osaka was on top of the world in 2018. In the U.S. Open, Osaka beat out tennis legend Serena Williams 6–2, 6–4 to win her first Grand Slam title. However, in the years to follow things have not been the same for her as the following months completely contrast her win in 2018. 

Osaka has brought the topic of athletes’ mental health to the center of sports conversations as her struggle with anxiety and depression shows that athletes are also just as human as anyone else. In 2021, Osaka withdrew from the French Open after she was fined $15,000 for skipping a press conference. She was threatened to be suspended from the tournament if she continued skipping press conferences, explaining her withdrawal from the competition. Osaka told Insider that she finds it very stressful to give the best answers to the press. Being vulnerable and anxious, she decided the best thing to do for herself was to skip the press conference. 

Players at the top of their level like Osaka endure immense pressure to keep up with other elite level players and maintain their dominance in their respective sports. For Osaka, winning the U.S. Open after only being on the professional tennis scene for a few years, had created enormous amounts of pressure to keep up. It’s this pressure of maintaining excellence that causes high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression among athletes.

Osaka was one of the catalysts for opening up about athletes’ mental health. The stigma up until that point where an athlete must show no signs of weakness had now been broken. Osaka opening up about her vulnerabilities allowed for relatability between athletes and fans through her struggles. She paved the way for other athletes to open up about their struggles with mental health like anyone else would.

All professional athletes are known for being physically fit at the highest level. However, to be at the top of their game, their mental states must also be well trained to ensure optimal performance. Athletes endure a lot of stress throughout their careers, as facing other top tier athletes that also want to make a name for themselves could cause loads of stress and anxiety. The need to perform well every week can build up stress and negatively affect people’s mental states. 

American swimmer Michael Phelps is well known for being the individual with the most medals in Olympic games history. Along with that also includes a grocery list of world records and awards, which makes him one of the greatest athletes of all time. 

Whilst he is known for his achievements, what people may not know about Phelps is that he has struggled with mental health throughout his career. Phelps says that he struggled with depression as well as suicidal thoughts following the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Being at the top of the mountain after four years of immense training, Phelps didn’t know where to go from there. He didn’t know who he was. 

In 2014, after successful stints in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Phelps checked himself into a psychiatric institute. Phelps recalls viewing himself as a human for the first time instead of a swimmer. His treatment allowed him to understand the things that had been eating him up throughout his career. It’s the help he received that allowed him to escape the isolation he had endured.

As for Robert Enke, his tragedy is a constant reminder of why athletes’ mental health should always be prioritized. Enke’s story shows how everything might look fine on the outside, but may not be internally. 

Enke was a German goalkeeper who rose to prominence in the late 90s and early 2000s. He found success at top clubs like Borussia Monchengladbach, Benfica, and Hannover 96, the latter of which he found his most successful. At Hannover, everything seemed to be going well for Enke. He was consistently performing well for his team and was considered the best goalkeeper in the league at the time. His performances were so great that he was considered a frontrunner for the German national team’s starting position, who would be attending the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. 

Yet in November of 2009, two days after playing in a 2-2 draw against Hamburg SV, Enke tragically passed away by committing suicide. The whole soccer community was shocked by the news of his death. Everyone is unable to comprehend how a player in the prime of their life would end their life.

Enke struggled with depression throughout his career. In 2002, while at FC Barcelona he developed depression after falling out with the club and the manager. This stalled his career as Barcelona would loan him to Fenerbache and Tenerife, before leaving for Hannover in 2004. He was diagnosed with depression again in 2006 after the death of his two year old daughter Lara. In 2009 he developed depression again. Even though Enke was receiving therapy, he was never admitted into a psychiatric institute, fearing that it would end his football career. The depression had been too hard on Enke, who ended his life later that year.

Athletes, whilst being unbelievably skilled at what they do at a scale that an average person could never compare to. However, athlete’s; like humans, also suffer from mental health throughout their lives. Mental health is a constant reminder of who these athletes truly are. They’re not just athletes, they’re human.

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