Osaka’s struggles with mental health hit home for other athletes

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From the hits to the high-fives, Cortney VanLiew’s life revolves around volleyball, and that’s the way she likes it. But the FGCU student-athlete said competing at high levels also comes with stress and strain, and takes a mental toll. (Credit: WINK News)

The woman expected to win the French Open dropped out of the tournament for her mental health.

Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the competition came after tournament officials fined her $15,000 for not speaking to the media following her first-round match on Sunday. The four-time major champion, 23, announced on Twitter before the first round that she would not participate in any news conferences at the tournament, citing mental health reasons. After she was fined, she announced she would withdraw from the French Open and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.

Now, her story has athletes around the world talking about living in the spotlight and being scrutinized.

From the hits to the high-fives, Cortney VanLiew’s life revolves around volleyball, and that’s the way she likes it.

“My favorite thing throughout the years and all the different teams that I’ve been on, is the different girls that I’ve gotten to meet,” she said.

The Florida Gulf Coast University student-athlete said competing at high levels also comes with stress and strain, and takes a mental toll.

“I’ve always had a tough time sharing what I’m going through with other people; I like to think that I can handle them myself.”

With COVID-19, her anxiety got worse, and VanLiew knew she had to say something because she also knew she wasn’t alone.

“For a lot of people, their sport is their escape from whatever’s going on. And we kind of lost a coping mechanism almost in a time that we needed it the most,” she said.

“I used the platform that I’ve been given to try and let student-athletes know that it’s okay to talk about what we’re going through, and to encourage others to feel valued.”

VanLiew said she “probably 100” student-athletes reach out to her, some of them she didn’t know, to tell her they appreciated her speaking out.

“They just said, ‘I really needed to hear this. Thank you for posting it.'”

J. Webb Horton, former head coach of FGCU’s men’s tennis, said the movement to normalize mental health needs is needed and necessary.

“Depression and anxiety – we’ve seen it happen over COVID over the last few months – it doesn’t care what your ethnicity is, doesn’t care how much money you make, it doesn’t care where you live, doesn’t care what your age is,” he said.

“Those were things that men and women who are athletes – because you got to be macho, right – we’re never admitting to.”

When top athletes like Osaka speak out, change is possible.

“What we’ve seen now with Naomi Osaka, is that it’s now come to the forefront of saying that this is normal, that people have anxiety and depression,” Horton said.

“You’re seeing men and women in all sports, basketball, football, tennis, who are all coming to the aid of Naomi, saying, ‘Hey, take time, find a way to heal yourself. And then come back to the sport when you’re ready.'”

“Mental health will be stigmatized until it’s not,” VanLiew said. “And that has to start at the top with the people you idolize, especially growing up – sports figures are held in the highest regards.”

Whether you play sports or not, we’re all teammates, and we’re all in this together.

“If people have a bigger platform and they’re using it and they’re talking about it like it’s a normal thing to talk about, then the younger kids growing up will realize that it is okay to discuss it as well. And I think that that is huge in ways that we can’t even imagine,” VanLiew said.

Two former FGCU soccer players created a website called “We’re All Teammates” where people from around the world can share their mental health struggles. Posts can be anonymous.

VanLiew said reading those stories helps her feel less alone.


Warning signs to look out for in your child:

  • Isolation or refusal to attend school;
  • Changes in eating habits;
  • Withdrawal from peers or social activities;
  • Withdrawal from extracurricular activities at school or in the community; and/or
  • Reports of bullying, harassment, or intimidation in school, the community, or on social media.

Kids’ Minds Matter

SalusCare has a weekly zoom support group for parents. It’s free and you do not need to be a client. It’s Monday nights at 7. Zoom ID: 975 9545 3712 Password: 488302

SalusCare Emergency Services: 239-275-4242

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255​

Disaster Distress Helpline

Parent/Caregiver Guide for Helping Families Cope with COVID-19

Smart Social: Monitor your kids online

National Association of School Psychologists: School safety and crisis

David Lawrence Center website for children

If you or a loved one are struggling, you can find support by visiting resources on the NAMI website.

For a comprehensive list of resources and organizations, you can visit This is My Brave.

For additional tools, including a treatment locator, you can visit the CDC’s mental health web page.


FGCU Community Counseling Center

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Collier County

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry counties

Lee Health – Behavioral Health

Lee Health Foundation’s – ‘Kids Minds Matter’

Circle of Care: A Guidebook for Mental Health Caregivers

Collier County Mental Health Court

Lee County Mental Health Court

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

Local Support Groups: Anxiety and Depression Association of America

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help)

Southwest Florida Resource Link

Stop Now And Plan (SNAP)

Lutheran Services of Florida Family Crisis Counseling

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Talking to kids about suicide

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