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Alyson Watson says she remembers a time not too long ago when the news coverage of an athlete did not play out in real time, when there were no instantaneous updates posted on social media.
“You weren’t on Twitter for doing well or not doing well,” says Watson, a former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player and the founder and chief executive officer of Modern Health, a mental health resources company. “Now there are entire Twitter feeds about how people are playing live on a court. We’re tethered to technology, tethered to social media. There is more pressure on people than ever before.”
The path that led Watson to start her own company had its roots in Watson’s own experiences as a student-athlete. While she achieved numerous athletic accolades at her high school, Milton Academy, when she later played for the Division-I Johns Hopkins Blue Jays women’s lacrosse team, she would experience panic attacks before she even stepped onto the field.
“I never really had the courage to speak up. Especially as an athlete, you’re supposed to be tough, resilient,” says Watson. “You shouldn’t be struggling with mental health issues. You kind of have to internalize it and deal with it yourself.”
Now with Modern Health, Watson says, the hope is to encourage people to proactively work on their mental health if they struggle with depression, panic attacks and anxiety. One way the company can help is to try and provide people with the tools they need “to thrive in this new environment that we live in,” says Watson.
She also says athletes and other bold-face names in entertainment or other fields can help raise awareness about mental health through their platforms — social media or otherwise. Earlier this month, Modern Health partnered with women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka — who has been vocal in the past year-plus about her personal mental health struggles — to be the company’s chief community health advocate.
“One of the reasons that we’re excited about partnering with Naomi is how real she is and how vulnerable she is,” says Watson. “She uses social media not just to say, ‘Here’s my perfect life.’ She also shares when she is vulnerable. She shows gratitude. She’s human. That is one of the reasons that we were so drawn to working with her. She represents that authenticity.”
Osaka, 24, made $60 million in earnings for the 12 months that ended on May 1, 2021, and she is No. 19 on the list of the world’s highest-paid athletes this year, according to Forbes. But the four-time Grand Slam singles champion has also been open — whether on social media or during interviews — about the pressures and stress every level of athlete encounters, especially if the goal is to go professional. Osaka says one of the reasons she was drawn to Modern Health is because the company “spoke to accessibility.”
Osaka says she hopes professional sports leagues and sports governing bodies “listen and have the courage to evolve” on the issue of athletes’ mental health wellness.
“And admit that perhaps old practices need to be updated and to hear what we are saying so that collectively we can find better ways of doing things,” says Osaka.
The Japanese tennis star also says that she’s particularly concerned about the young female athletes’ fragility as the navigate their early lives.
“I hope that we can make sports more accessible to young women all over the world. That is actually what we discussed when starting the Naomi Osaka Play Academy,” says Osaka. “To empower young girls in sport and to help provide the resources for those girls to be able to play and train. In many countries, sport among girls is not encouraged and we hope to change that.”
Watson says that with the broader issue of mental health wellness, it’s important to understand that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
“The big part of what we do that’s different in this (Modern Health) space is triaging people to their right level of care, in a personalized way based upon what their needs and goals and preferences are,” says Watson.
She and Osaka both say that social media in particular is an element of our lives that, when used responsibly, can be a much more effective in reducing negativity.
“Social media is different for different people so I would say to use it in a way that feels true and real to you,” says Osaka. “Also remember that it is a reflection of you and will follow you over the years so it shouldn’t always be an impulsive medium but more a form of expression.”
“We get updates on our phone constantly – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. What we often see about everyone is this perfect story,” says Watson. “You don’t see people updating their social media to say, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling.’ On one hand, all these amazing benefits from technology, you can argue have made a positive impact. But it has been a double-edged sword.”
Watson adds that she’s encouraged by the attention mental health has received in the media and the progress that has been made on advancing the issue forward. But the efforts must continue.
“What is causing these mental health issues to skyrocket? Is it the way we’re living? Is it the pressure of social media?” she asks. “Our mission is to create access to excellent mental health care to as many people as possible. Together, we will combine Modern Health’s clinical expertise and Naomi’s incredible voice, vulnerability, and influence to continue to drive positive change around mental wellness for individuals across the world.”