In the background of the build-up to the 2021 Summer Olympic Games, there has been an ongoing discussion regarding the mental health of young, Black athletes, primarily women. Earlier this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka stepped away from both the French Open and Wimbledon because she felt that her current media obligations with open press at major tournaments were negatively impacting her mental health. Not long thereafter, Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel began publicly talking about how societal pressures and an extra year of training have put an incalculable strain on her mental health. Most recently, Sha'Carri Richardson was put under a societal microscope after she ingested or inhaled marijuana after abruptly learning about the death of her biological mother through a reporter. Together, Osaka, Manuel, Richardson and many other Black women in sports are taking this discussion, making it public and normalizing the process of taken breaks to address mental health issues.
“Athletes are increasingly taking ownership of their personal narrative and making their own choices about sharing that personal narrative," professor Le'Roy Reese of the Morehouse College of Medicine told NBC News.
"There is now a sense of agency among professional athletes that we have not seen before with regard to their voices.”
Thanks to Osaka, Manuel, Richardson and the dozens of athletes who paved the way for them in this discussion, other athletes, athletic organizations and brands are taking notice. According to a report from Athletes For Hope, 35% of athletes will face an uphill battle when dealing with a mental health crisis. As a result, Team USA established a an "athlete services" department that provides athletes with counseling groups, therapists and much more.
“Looking at people like Naomi and all the other athletes who are talking about it, I feel like it will start a snowball effect,” Olympian Raven Saunders concluded.
"People will see that it’s not as negative as you’d think. There’s a lot more benefits to being open than we’d like to think.”