It was a newsworthy moment when tennis star Naomi Osaka announced that she wouldn’t participate in media interviews because of her battle with depression and anxiety. The fact that the World Tennis Association fined her $15,000 got even more press. But her withdrawal from the French Open has put the issue of mental health front and center. It’s not as if she’s the first athlete to suffer from depression and anxiety. NBA All-Star Kevin Love, gymnast Aly Raisman, and baseball’s Zack Greinke have talked about their struggles, as has Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who called Osaka’s coming forward a “game-changer… I hope this is the breaking point of really being able to open up and save more lives”.
While the support for Osaka has been strong and vocal, let’s not overlook the nasty responses to her withdrawal. “Diva behavior” was one sportswriter’s response. The most annoying comment came from Piers Morgan who took time out from harassing Meghan Markle to focus on another woman of color by calling Osaka,“World sport’s most petulant little madam”. No wonder women are 2-3 times more likely to develop depression than men.
It’s time to get real about mental health. It isn’t just an issue for famous people under a mountain of stress. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. There are 40 million adults affected every year. every year. About 25% of our young people ages 13-18 years old are affected. And almost one-half of people with anxiety disorders also suffer from depression. Major Depressive Disorders (MDD) has been the major cause of disability in ages 15 to 44 years old. And COVID has skyrocketed the numbers. A survey in 2020 by Southern Cross University reported a whopping 98 percent of respondents saying that COVID had affected their mental health.
We’re now seeing legislation that funds mental health more substantially. As part of the $3 billion allocation included in the American Rescue Plan, the federal government is sending the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) more than $27 million for mental health services over the next four years. We need it! If ever there was a situation to address anxiety and depression, this is it.
It’s great to have this funding for mental health since so many sufferers need help paying for psychiatric treatment. Even our Navy has submitted a reprogramming request to the Defense Department to allow reallocation of funds towards mental health services. But only about one-third of adults and one-fourth of children and adolescent will get psychiatric treatment. While the funding is well-intentioned, the post-COVID demand is unprecedented. And the pool of psychiatrists is drying up. The average age of psychiatrists is in the mid-fifties and many are retiring. Others are leaving the profession as burnout takes them down. We see headlines like this in Forbes Magazine, “Psychiatric shortage escalates as US mental health needs grow”. And the American Psychiatric Association predicts, “The psychiatrist workforce will contract through 2024 to a projected low of 38,821, which is equal to a shortage of between 14,280 and 31,091 psychiatrists”.
Are there more psychiatrists in the pipeline? Unfortunately, it’s iffy. It takes 12 years of college, medical school and internships to become a psychiatrist. That costs around $250,000 plus there’s a lower rate of reimbursement for psychiatry than other medical fields. So we need to incentivize potential psychiatrists. Tweet Naomi Osaka and ask her to endow med-school scholarships. And tell elected folks to vote for forgiving medical education debt. After all, the depression needing treatment could be yours.