On the cover of this week’s Time magazine, a portrait of tennis superstar Naomi Osaka appears with the headline “It’s O.K. to not be O.K.”
The statement is a reference to Osaka’s much publicized decision to withdraw from the French Open after being told she would be penalized for her decision to not attend press conferences to protect her mental health.
Osaka’s decision in late May shocked many, garnered disdain from some writers, earned praise from other athletes and opened up a broader conversation about mental health and sports. Many predicted that Osaka’s brave choice would open the door to more compassion, openness and understanding about mental health. In her essay for Time, Osaka wrote, “It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does.”
In mid-June, former Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman weighed in, saying that professional sports still had a “long way to go” in addressing mental health and commended Osaka for speaking up, saying, “She did a phenomenal job, and I think that it’s going to lead to more people coming out. She was very vulnerable, and I think that liberates a lot of people to come out.”
Now, just a month later, Sherman’s own mental health struggles are in the spotlight. Sherman was arrested last week following a 911 call believed to be by his wife, Ashley Moss-Sherman, saying he had been drinking and threatened to kill himself. In a later call, his wife said he had been going through a bad depression. On Friday, Sherman was charged with five misdemeanors, including driving under the influence and criminal trespass after reportedly attempting to force entry into his in-laws’ Redmond home.
I don’t know what exactly happened that night, but I do know that no one should have to experience the kind of fear that Moss-Sherman and her family reportedly experienced.
Sherman released a statement Friday on Twitter expressing remorse for his actions and writing, “I have been dealing with some personal challenges over the last several months, but that is not an excuse for how I acted. The importance of mental and emotional health is extremely real and I vow to get the help I need.”
The Sherman case and others show we still have a lot of work to do before it’s really OK to not be OK in our society.
We have become better at talking a good game when it comes to mental health. Many voiced support for Osaka and track phenom Sha’Carri Richardson, when Richardson lost her spot on the Olympic team this month after she said she was self-medicating with marijuana to cope with the death of her mother.
But when push comes to shove, it seems we would rather sacrifice all the lofty rhetoric around mental health in favor of a good old-fashioned, entertaining media spectacle. Grab the popcorn, enjoy the show.
As writer Evrett Kramer wrote in Sports Illustrated about the Sherman arrest last week, our good intentions around treating people in crisis as humans deserving of care are quickly eclipsed by our insatiable desire to watch the downfall of others.
“As The Internet Exploded with the news (7,000 tweets in the first hour alone), you could literally see the Downfall Machinery grind itself up and sink its huge teeth into this juicy content,” Kramer wrote. “At this point our need to consume content is so far past addiction that it has become more of a quick paced evolution of our culture as a species that we cannot help but leap into this fray at whatever level we connect to the spectacle.”
And for every person watching the latest downfall unfold, they see how we act, not just what we say. They see how people who experience mental health issues are actually treated, which informs how open they will be when they need help themselves.
To rewind the events of last week, what if Moss-Sherman was able to call the soon-to-be-implemented 988 suicide-prevention hotline designed for people to seek help with a mental health crisis without involving the police? What if a team of mental health workers and medics were dispatched to de-escalate the situation and prevent what Moss-Sherman feared could be a deadly altercation with police for her husband? What if medical care was dispatched instead of people with guns? Instead of a 911 dispatcher who treated her with condescension and disrespect, what if Moss-Sherman was provided trauma-informed support from someone trained in social work while she was in extreme distress?
All of these things are possible and on the horizon, but we must first lead with our commitment to deeds and not just words.
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