Media and mental health are a two-edged sword
If we talk about mental health and the media, most of us would admit we have a love-hate relationship with them and as long as we don’t talk about mental health in public or out loud, we can watch others suffer in their own prisons.
When Naomi Osaka refused to participate in media interviews before the recent French Open, citing her mental health, it was a powerful but deeply personal admission. After seeing some of the interviews athletes and entertainers endure, is it any wonder why she wouldn’t want to participate?
From stupid questions, like “How did it feel to make that game-winning shot?” or “When you botched that last serve, what was going through your mind?” who could blame her?
When I was a journalism professor a hundred years ago, I threatened to find my students and abuse them if I ever heard they asked such questions. I was serious and when we think about it, in this high-stakes-elite athlete/ celebrity/24-hour news cycle these stars exist in, it’s a wonder any of them stay sane. Saying no was monumental indeed, and Osaka’s refusal prompted a hefty fine and additional withdrawals from competition.
We understand the critical connection between physical performance and mental health, and if our hearts and minds aren’t in sync, what happens everywhere else suffers, and Naomi Osaka’s challenges aren’t hers alone.
Whether it’s post-partum depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, phobias, dementia, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), chemical imbalances, or some of their other equally debilitating cousins, we are all vulnerable. The kind and volume of empathy we extend when someone is diagnosed with cancer or heart ailments has to be extended for those who suffer mental health challenges.
Former Second Lady Tipper Gore became a powerful voice for awareness, research, and erasing the stigma that often goes with discussions about mental health. Look at the numbers: mental illness affects the lives of one in five people according to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, but the need for affordable and quality mental health care continues to be an issue. When high profile people like Ms. Osaka, Serena Williams, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, share their struggles, it shines a spotlight on topics that too often get fastened away and off the radar.
Trust me, nobody goes to work and kills their colleagues if they’re mentally healthy and balanced. Veterans don’t take their own lives because they are adjusting beautifully to civilian life. Women don’t drown their children if everything is lovely, and youngsters struggling with their identity don’t harm themselves because they feel loved and accepted.
Repeated media coverage of disasters and trauma may also cause mental health decline. Brain.org research is showing that while most of the coverage around disasters focuses on damages, cleanup, injuries, and fatalities, rarely is there any accounting for the emotional toll survivors might endure. In much of the recent coverage around the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Riots, the handful of survivors said they were permanently impacted by the events.
With the frequency of mass shootings and mayhem in public places, I’ve become more aware, but I decided not to live in fear, but everyone can’t choose to do that. If you’ve been a victim of flooding, it may feel like Hurricane Katrina every time it rains.
Friends, mental health is too important to relegate it to second class status. Let’s advocate for intentional and equitable mental health coverage for our neighbors, family, and friends, and learn and do more to support those struggling with mental health issues. Ms. Osaka, thanks for having the courage to say no. We owe you one.
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