“It’s OK to not be OK.” Those six words summed up tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to take a mental health break and, in doing so, giving others permission to do the same.

Osaka, 23, withdrew from the French Open in May after being fined for missing a press conference to address her mental health. She then withdrew from Wimbledon, explaining she has struggled with depression for several years.

In a letter published in Time magazine, Osaka said athletes endure intense scrutiny about health issues, especially behavioral health. At the end, she noted, “I hope people can relate and understand that it’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to talk about it.”

“This is exactly the message we think is so important to communicate,” said Dr. Jennifer Ferrand, director of well-being for Hartford HealthCare. “Not only is it OK to have a mental health problem, but it is OK to talk about it. Naomi Osaka is a wonderful example that we are all human and not invincible, and sharing our personal stories de-stigmatizes help-seeking.”

Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, acknowledged that “literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.”

After pandemic upheaval and fear, Dr. Ferrand said the focus on mental health should be sharper than ever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a dramatic increase in the prevalence of depression (four times), anxiety (three times) and other common mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. At this critical time, people should also feel able to talk about feelings of depression and anxiety without fear.

Relating it to her work in a healthcare system, Dr. Ferrand noted, “It is unacceptable that, in the United States, one physician dies by suicide every day. Like professional athletes, many healthcare professionals suffer in silence, afraid of judgment and concerned about the perceived stigma of mental health issues.”

Recognizing distress and seeking help can be difficult for healthcare providers. To put it in perspective, she said, “It’s easy to tend to our physical injuries. No one would think twice about applying first aid to a cut or broken bone.  But what if we tended to our emotional injuries with that same level of care?”

Signs you need a mental health break – a quiet day off or an appointment with a mental health provider – include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness.
  • Loss of interest in regular activities.
  • Fatigue, insomnia or sleeping too much.
  • Feeling anxious, nervous or restless.
  • Increased irritability or mood swings.
  • Appetite or weight changes.
  • Thoughts of death.

“The signs are different for each of us,” Dr. Ferrand said. “It’s important to understand your limits and how your body and mind react to the stresses in your life. Seeking help when you need it is not a sign of weakness. And, if you have a personal story, share it with a colleague. It might save someone’s life.”