The disclosure by Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roberto Osuna that he is suffering from anxiety is another positive signal that some athletes feel comfortable enough to publicly discuss such issues, experts say.
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Yet despite progress being made in awareness and the ability to openly talk about mental health, it may still be considered a “bold” acknowledgement for the 22-year-old closer to make — especially in the world of sports, where the topic is not widely discussed.
Sport is still an environment where there’s a culture of masculinity, a sense that you need to be tough, said John Cairney, a University of Toronto kinesiology and physical education professor.
“To come forward and to express a vulnerability, even something like an anxiety issue or some form of mental health problem, is a pretty significant thing for an athlete to do,” he said.
Speaking through a team translator on Saturday, Osuna said an issue with anxiety kept him from Friday’s game.
“This has nothing to do with me being on the field, I feel great out there,” said Osuna. “It’s just when I’m out of baseball, when I’m not on the field, that I feel weird and a little bit lost.”
The Blue Jays’ mental performance coach, who travels with the team, has been working with Osuna to overcome his anxiety. By Sunday, Osuna had returned to the mound.
Osuna is certainly not the first sports star to go public with struggles with mental health.
A number of top athletes — including Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, and baseball players like the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto and Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke — have been open about their own issues.
Still, Carney said Osuna’s admission is “actually quite remarkable, it’s bold.”
“To come out in this format and talk about having struggles with anxiety, it’s a risky proposition,” he said. “People expect him to be on the field and they expect him to be ready to go.”
Cairney said Osuna should be applauded for his public acknowledgement of struggling with anxiety, something about 12 per cent of Canadians also experience.
“The difference is [Osuna] is in the public spotlight, and he’s in a sport where there’s a lot of stress and lot of eyes on him. So obviously that makes his circumstances quite a bit different.”
In other high-stress professions, such as the military or the field of first response, Cairney said some “amazing work” had been done on addressing such issues.
“I think [for] sport, the time has come. Maybe this will be the start of more awareness and more open discussions around mental health and addiction-related issues in sport.”
In a sports culture, the demand for perfection or to maintain a certain image can be a real impediment to admitting one is struggling with mental health, said Charles Brady, a psychologist and the director of the Ohio Lindner Center of HOPE’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety treatment program.
Yet Brady said he sees Osuna’s disclosure as a sign of progress.
“I think, finally, there’s a little more openness in our culture than there had been 20, 30 years ago. Particularly in a sports culture where there’s such a high level of machismo, where any admission of something that could sound like anxiety could sound like a personal weakness.”
Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, agreed that more athletes have been more open when it comes to talking about mental health issues.
“I think it’s also concurrent that society and athletes both are realizing that athletes are people, just like everybody else, and they experience the same things as everybody else does,” he said.
And when public figures like athletes are open about their mental health issues, it gives license for everyone else to speak up, said Mark Henick, national director of strategic initiatives for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
‘We need people to stand up’
“It still is, even in this day and age, such a stigmatized issue — things like anxiety and depression and mental health struggles — that we need people to stand up and say when things aren’t easy for them as well.”
Brady emphasized the importance of public figures opening up about their struggles, saying this his patients were significantly affected when the Toronto-born Votto spoke about his battle with anxiety after his father passed away.
“They really felt validated. They felt, ‘Hey, if Joey’s going through this, it helps me understand what I’m going through. I don’t blame myself and I can really start to face it with less shame, less embarrassment.'”