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Being called a brat for talking about mental health

One of the biggest mental health stories to hit the news this week is the story surrounding Naomi Osaka; the tennis star who recently opened up about her struggles with mental health.

In case you haven’t read about it, the short version is this. She said she wouldn’t be speaking to the press during the current French Open as it wasn’t good for her mental health. Contracts said she had to speak to the media. So she’s since withdrawn from the tournament. 

And some of the responses to this have been nothing short of disgusting and shameful.

She’s been called a brat, she’s been called narcissistic, and she’s been told if she can’t handle the pressure, to find another job. 

Put simply – a woman has been forced out of her job and out of her workplace because of struggles with her mental health. 

She hasn’t been supported through that process. There’s been zero senior leadership support and there’s been zero mental health support.

She’s been shamed for opening up and she’s been accused of attention-seeking. 

She’s been told she earns loads of money so just needs to get on with the job.

She’s been told to “woman up”.

She’s been hung out to dry. 

Her mental health issues have been dismissed, belittled and ripped apart. 

Now, of course, she’s in a unique situation. She’s a world-renowned celebrity with millions of eyes on her.

But, and this is the crucial part, the feelings of vulnerability, of shame, of sadness at the response – these feelings are no different to those that anyone else experiences.

It’s these exact same responses and emotions that prevent others from opening up within their own workplace. 

It’s the exact same lack of care and archaic business policies and practices that keep other employees suffering in silence. 

So what can you, as business leaders, managers and human beings learn from this? 

Firstly, we need to be creating spaces where employees feel safe to open up and for them to know that they’ll be supported in the right way. 

Secondly, we have to take people at their word. It’s not on you, me or anyone else to tell others how they are feeling or should be feeling. Ever. Nobody has that right except the person in question.

Maybe you don’t fully believe someone, and that’s fine to hold that opinion. But if an employee has opened up to struggles with mental health, you must take them at their word.

Although many in HR won’t admit it outright, I’m sure you’ve thought, or are thinking, “but what if people take the mick?”. You don’t need to feel guilty for thinking that.

And sure, some people may take the mick. But people can take the mick with anything. It’s easy to pretend you’ve got the flu and take a week off work. So damning those who are really suffering because of fears over a small minority will only lead to more harm than good. 

Finally, we have to look at existing processes and policies and ask ourselves; do these really serve our people anymore? Does Naomi really need to talk to the media when all she wants to do is play tennis? Is it really, truly necessary? What this means for each business will be different, but if work is causing mental health issues for employees, it could be a sign that something in the system is broken. 

Look, these things are hard to know how to respond to in the right way. It’s an interesting time for mental health where everyone knows it’s important, but it still feels like a tough one to handle.

But the response to Osaka is a prime example of how not to do it.

She may be a celebrity. But she experiences shame, isolation and struggles just as we all do. Employees will see the response she’s had and think “I’m not risking my job”.

So let’s do better than this. 

It’s on all of us.