After raising a child who has an anxiety disorder, I admire Naomi Osaka's self-advocacy
Peter Menzel/Wikimedia Commons, Naomi Osaka/Twitter

If you were to meet my college-aged daughter on certain days, you'd never guess she suffered from a debilitating anxiety disorder. She can be personable, she can appear confident, she can seem at ease and comfortable in her own skin from the outside. She's a musician and she performs beautifully—and even particularly well under pressure. You might catch her belly laughing with her friends. You might see her excel at giving a class presentation. You might marvel at her many gifts.

What you wouldn't see is how many days she has spent barely able to leave her bedroom. How many hours she's spent paralyzed by the "what if" monster in her brain. How many social events she's missed because she just couldn't make herself get in the car. How many emails she's had to send teachers to explain that her anxiety was getting the better of her (and could she possibly get an extension on a deadline?). You won't see how many times and ways she's beat herself up for not being able to function like people who don't struggle with mental illness.

My daughter is smart and talented and capable. She also wages daily internal battles most people don't see, and she doesn't win every battle. Therapy has helped a lot, but it's a lot of work. Raising her has helped me develop a deep respect for anyone who struggles with anxiety because I know how much work it takes to get to a good place. And I know how much work it takes to get your brain to stay there.

That's why seeing tennis star Naomi Osaka announce that she wasn't going to do press conferences at the French Open because they were too hard on her mental health piqued my attention. I don't really follow tennis and only know Osaka's name from headlines, but reading her initial statement felt familiar.


At age 23, Osaka is only a few years older than my daughter. And yet it's clear that she, like my daughter, has learned to advocate for herself. That's a gift that should not be undervalued.

When Osaka explained that she wouldn't be doing press conferences at the French Open, many people immediately criticized her. Talking to the press is part of being a professional athlete, some said, and if she doesn't like it maybe she shouldn't be in pro sports. I don't think those people actually listened to what she was saying. Or perhaps they didn't really think through what she said.

"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," Osaka wrote in a statement on Twitter and Instagram last week. "We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.

    "I've watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."

    After basically being told she'd have to participate in press conferences, face huge fines, or perhaps be prevented from competing, Osaka pulled out of the tournament altogether. And this time, she got a bit more specific about her mental health struggles.

    "I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that," she wrote. "Anyone that knows me knows I'm introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

    "Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can."

    I can imagine my daughter saying something like this—and I also know that she'd mean something more than what the simple words on the page say. Most of us would feel nervous talking to the press, naturally, which leads to people's "Eh, just suck it up and deal with it" attitudes. But for someone who struggles with anxiety as a mental health disorder, it's not just about dealing with some nerves. Anxiety can be debilitating—and it affects everything. My daughter's anxiety disorder has nothing directly to do with her schoolwork, and yet it makes getting her schoolwork done nearly impossible some days. I can only imagine how anxiety would impact an athlete's performance—the whole purpose for their being in a tournament to begin with—and how necessary it would feel to mitigate the things that contribute to it.

    So while some people have called Osaka a drama queen or a diva for saying, "I'm not okay with this, and here's why," I see a young woman who is being vulnerable in sharing her needs, advocating for herself, and taking necessary action when a situation isn't tenable.

    My daughter has had to learn to advocate for herself, which is vulnerable and scary. Thankfully, the vast majority of the time her self-advocacy been met with support and reasonable accommodation. I've seen similar support and solidarity pour out for Osaka on social media, which is heartening. I've also seen callous criticism and cruelty, which heartbreaking.

    Naomi Osaka is one of the top tennis players on the planet, and for her to back out of a major global tournament is no small thing. And she's right—talking to the press isn't an innate part of being an athlete, nor is it a necessary one, especially in the age of social media where athletes have the ability to speak directly to people who follow them.

    I've seen people bag on Osaka because she makes millions of dollars from tennis, meaning she should just put up with the bad stuff since it's paying her so well. But just because someone is highly successful in their field and makes a ton of money doesn't mean they are immune to mental health issues, and it certainly doesn't mean we should expect them to do things that are hurting them.

    When my daughter is deep in a bout of anxiety, no amount of money could make her do something that her brain is telling her not to do—even when it's something she wants to do. But that doesn't mean she can't do anything. Naomi Osaka's mental health isn't keeping her from playing tennis. Her ability to compete isn't the question here. It's the mental health impact of media expectations, and if an athlete who is at the top of their game, who has spent their whole life working toward competing in top-level tournaments, backs out of something like the French Open, that means something.

    Having watched and walked with my daughter through years of battle with her own brain, I admire Osaka for highlighting the importance of mental health. I know that many people don't understand her needs or don't agree with the way she's communicating them, but those people have no idea how hard this stuff is. Seriously, no idea.

    I know, because I didn't have any idea until I witnessed and walked with my daughter through her own anxiety ups and downs how hard it truly is. So even if the only thing that comes from this is a bigger discussion on mental health, great. We need to talk about this stuff more often and more openly.

    Thank you, Ms. Osaka, for getting the ball rolling.


      Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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      When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

      Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

      Image courtesy of Letters of Love

      Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

      Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

      When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

      “I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

      In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


      Image courtesy of Letters of Love

      Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

      Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

      Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

      “I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

      Image courtesy of Letters of Love

      In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

      “There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

      Image courtesy of Letters of Love

      Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

      Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

      “The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

      Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

      Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

      “When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

      For more information visit Letters of Love.

      Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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      Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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      AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

      Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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      The pandemic threw a wrench into seeing live musicians for a good chunk of time, and even now, live performances are limited. Thankfully, we have technology that makes it easier for musicians to collaborate and perform with one another virtually—and also makes it easier for people to create "group" performances all by themselves.

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