For years, there was no healthy conversation in the sports world when it came to mental illness. Athletes, for a long time, were told to suck it up and not talk about their feelings. In 2012, The New York Times published an article about this very issue. “Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray,” said Dr. Thelma Dye Holmes, the executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, one of New York’s oldest mental health agencies” read the article.
In recent years, we’ve seen athletes come out and open up about struggles with mental health. It was assumed for a long time that good physical health means good mental health and that being able to play professional sports just makes all of your problems disappear. News flash…it doesn’t.
It’s been a long time coming but in recent years many athletes have started to speak out about mental illness. This list includes Allison Schmitt (USA Swimming), Dan Carcillo (NHL), Kevin Love (NBA) and one of the greatest Olympians of all time, Michael Phelps (USA Swimming). This has started a trend in which teams and other athletes are feeling comfortable talking about these issues. Author Alfie Potts Harmer reported that “athletes have among the highest rates of mental illness with as many as 25% experiencing.
Athletes of every age, gender and race are affected by mental illness daily. In 2010, a young hockey player living in Ottawa, Ontario committed suicide. Daron Richardson, daughter of Luke Richardson, an NHL player and current NHL coach, died at age 14. No one knew she was suffering. From the outside, you would have never seen it. Do it for Daron was started by her friends and teammates to change lives, and educate people. For me, and many others playing minor hockey, a purple heart with DIFD is a recognizable logo on jerseys and helmet stickers. It has not only inspired me to learn about mental illness but to advocate for those suffering. Awareness and education are two of the most important pieces to a society where mental illness is accepted. This was a massive step towards changing the conversation in the hockey community.
In the hockey world alone, mental illness has taken the lives of so many including Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Terry Trafford and Derek Boogaard among others. The hockey community has really stepped up and started initiatives around mental illness. These caused people to truly understand what was happening in our sports.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach, Mike Babcock is a huge advocate for mental health. He often talks about making sure his players are ok. He has conversations with them about things away from hockey. He gets to know their life away from the game. He wants to be more than just a hockey coach. We need more coaches like Babcock. His door is always open.
Kevin Love, NBA veteran wrote about his struggles in a post called “Everyone Is Going Through Something” which you can read on The Player’s Tribune here. Love talks about the stereotypes and mentality when it comes to talking about feeling in sports. He also touches on another NBA player, DeMar DeRozan discussing depression. Love teaches us that you never know what a person is going through just by looking at them from the outside. He also did an incredible forty-five minute interview with ESPN, this past August, which can be seen here.
The one athlete that spoke out and really changed my vision on this issue was Michael Phelps. I always knew of Phelps a superhuman swimmer I had ever seen. Little did I know that he was really just like all of us. Phelps told Megyn Kelly on Megyn Kelly TODAY in 2017 that there was a time when he “didn’t want to be alive anymore.” Phelps also helped close friend and Team USA teammate, Allison Schmitt through her battle. He became a shoulder to lean on. Hearing the story that Phelps shared really made me gain a new level of respect for him as a person rather than an athlete. It shows that if the most successful Olympian in history, the man with 23 Olympic Gold medals, then mental illness really doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone.
In sports, we have to get rid of the notion that mental illness makes you any weaker or less of a person. It absolutely does not. Sports teams and coaches need to be supportive and drop the “suck it up and get out there attitude”. Discussing mental illness should not be taboo or something that should be whispered about. Many teams and leagues across the globe have started to implement programs to help their athletes and staff through whatever they may be struggling with. Although this is a great start, I still believe there is a long way to go.
Feature Image: Pixabay