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When does it end? When? The stigma that is so firmly attached to mental illness must end; and yet, it continues, making itself known in full force during the month of May, which is designated as Mental Health Month.

It’s very much like a cruel joke played on us all. It remains appalling, incredulous, and completely unacceptable. We should each be outraged at its prolific toxicity. If not, then we remain a significant part of the problem. We remain the obstacles in its way to being completely dismantled. We remain the guilty ones for not standing up and shouting to the mountaintops, “Stop!”

On the last day of Mental Health Month, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing her mental health concerns. The French Tennis Federation was handed a rare opportunity to show support, to offer help, to defuse the momentum that was building up around Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the tournament. Instead, they fined her $15,000 after she announced that she would not be participating in any post-match press conferences, in order to protect her mental wellbeing.

She was fairly certain that she would be fined, stating that if that happened the money would go toward a mental health charity. The momentum continued to build, as all four Grand Slam tournaments joined to threaten to suspend Osaka from future tournaments if she continued to “ignore her media obligations.”

We should all be outraged. And if we’re not, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?!”

Amanda Yeo, reporting for Mashable, said, “ . . . you could make post-match press conferences optional and allow all athletes to choose whether they’d like to participate.” Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But, of course, reason seems to be absent from every single layer of this unfortunate incident.

Yeo went on to comment that Osaka could either force herself to attend press conferences, continue avoiding them or take the route of a third option: withdrawing from the French Open.

The blatant disregard for Osaka’s mental health is outrageous. Osaka said, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

This is a point when we should all exercise a generous amount of empathy. Make no mistake about it; this is not a judgment call. This is a call to action.

Beginning in the late 1990s, after suffering more than a few losses in my personal life, the state of my mental health was at risk. After being diagnosed with severe depression, I found myself researching everything I could find out about the condition to a level that reached mania. I was desperate for knowledge. A dear friend gifted a copy of William Styron’s masterpiece, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.

The author visited Charleston many years ago, and gave a reading and presentation at the Cultural Center. It was an incredible gift to talk with him after the event. I’ve read and re-read this work so many times, returning to a passage that will always resonate with me: “For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’

“There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”

Make no mistake about it though, the period between a depressive episode and the restoration of health is so very vast.

Osaka has been inundated with support from fellow athletes and fans. But the FFT’s President Giles Moretton said, “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year.”

What was most ironic was that after delivering his comments, he exited without taking any questions from the press.

This is a moment for each of us to stop, take a deep breath, exhale, and examine our own attitudes towards the preservation of a mental health that is, indeed, healthy. And if it isn’t, what are we prepared to do about it, for ourselves and those we hold dear and all mankind. And with a state that is comprised of residents who are battling addiction on a level that is so very concerning, where the homeless population builds and builds, and where quality health care and educational opportunities are dwindling, remember that if mental illness is a problem for one, it will become a problem for all.

Kathleen Jacobs, Runner-up Best Author of West Virginia for 2020, lives in Charleston.

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