Why Being Open about Mental Health Matters
Earlier this month, tennis champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open due to concerns regarding her mental health. In an Instagram post, Osaka wrote, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw . . . I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.” Osaka also touched on her anxiety, which she has spoken publicly about in the past.
Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament and openness about her depression was met with support from fans, competitors, and celebrities alike. Although Osaka isn’t the first athlete or public figure to speak out about mental illness, it’s still a relatively taboo topic in society with many sufferers, both in and out of the spotlight, opting to remain quiet.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people who struggle with mental illness don’t receive help. This is largely due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness, which has made an increasing number of people unwilling to advocate for themselves and seek treatment, in fear of being stigmatized and ostracized.
This is why being open and honest about mental illness is not just important but crucial. A national survey conducted in 2020 found that approximately three-quarters of teenagers seeking information online about depression said they were looking for personal anecdotes from people who had previously suffered themselves. The survey supports the idea that it’s easier to deal with and address mental health concerns when you feel less alone and isolated.
Social media, despite various issues, has become a way for young people, in particular, to seek out mental health support and connections. Likewise, social media has also become a platform for the aforementioned public figures to share their experiences with mental illness and reach these vulnerable populations. From Osaka to Demi Lovato to Billie Eilish to Prince Harry, a growing number of celebrities are opening up about their mental health, which, in turn, brings awareness, sparks dialogue, and instills hope in those afflicted.
On a personal note, I have existed on both sides of the spectrum. There was a point in my early teens where being open about my mental illnesses—anorexia, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder—seemed like the most terrifying thing ever. Though this was only seven years ago, the stigma surrounding mental illness was tenfold what it is now. I didn’t know of anyone, in my personal life or in the media, who had my conditions, much less had survived them. It was extremely isolating and lonely.
It took a great deal of time, treatment, and acceptance to reach a place in my life where I was at least somewhat comfortable sharing my story and advocating for my mental wellbeing. When I published my debut novel, a fictional story that was heavily based on my personal experiences, I decided it was important for me to talk about what I’d been through. In addition to promoting my books, it was the biggest way I’d be able to positively impact how society perceives and accepts mental illness. It would also allow me to connect with and reassure people who are struggling with similar issues that it does get better.
I didn’t truly realize the influence my authenticity and openness had until I started hearing from people: readers saying my books taught them a lot about mental illness. Former peers thanking me and sharing their own mental health struggles. Parents of kids with eating disorders reaching out via Facebook to tell me that I gave them hope. I even heard from extended family members, who were aware of what I’d been going through, that they didn’t truly understand it until they listened to me speak.
Recently, it’s been disheartening to see mental illness cases skyrocketing. Largely due to the pandemic, mental illness among both teens and young adults has drastically increased over the past year. Yet, at the same time, the number of people coming forward to share their story, from the sixteen-year-old student who’s too anxious to attend school to the big-name celebrity with millions of social media followers, has been inspiring and motivating. Every voice makes a difference.
There is immense value and importance in speaking your truth. The more people who realize this and take that courageous leap, the more accepting and knowledgeable our society will be when it comes to mental health. Talking openly about my mental illness still scares me sometimes, but realizing the impact my honesty and vulnerability have on others makes the nerves completely worthwhile. I continue to keep in mind how I felt at thirteen and look forward to a future when no person, young or old, feels that same crippling shame and loneliness, but rather takes comfort in knowing they aren’t all alone.