mental health in sports
Photo Credit: Peachtree Hoops

Breaking the Stigma; Mental Health in Sports


Since 1949, May has been the month that is reserved for Mental Health Awareness.


Mental illness is a critical, often overlooked issue in America. Approximately 1- 5 adults suffer from a mental health disorder at some point in their life. Worldwide, 450 million people currently experience such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading cause of ill-health and disability. Studies have determined that many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. In particular, depressive illnesses tend to occur with an anxiety disorder as well. 

A stigma has surrounded Americans who are struggling with mental illness, and in today’s age, professional athletes are especially affected by this perception. It is very rare for athletes to speak out on their struggles. Athletes are taught at a young age to be tough, to display no emotion, and to “suck it up” and avoid seeking help for their problems. This perception is magnified with all levels of athletes – specifically in professional sports. What team owner would want an athlete suffering from mental health on their team? 

Photo Credit: Sporting News

About twenty years ago, a professional football player, Barret Robbins, who played for the Raiders, critical to the Offensive Line, missed Super Bowl XXXVII game because he was suffering from mental illness issues. The media and public were not sympathetic to his health. The consensus was that he let his team down. People said what he did was “unforgivable.” For years he refused even to discuss what happened to him. Everyone believed he just disappeared. Years later, it was learned Robbins was bi-polar. This is why it is unacceptable for not only men, but especially professional athletes to be associated with anxiety or mental health issues. However, there are signs that there are positive changes in this area.


Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health issue.


Kevin Love, a professional basketball player, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has dealt with mental health issues since he was a young boy. Basketball became an outlet for him. Like many individuals who struggle with mental health issues, Kevin could not cope with being alone with his thoughts. He needed to find outlets to act as a distraction. Love says, “It’s the physical exertion that takes your mind out of the equation. I’m fine when my mind is preoccupied. It’s the moments you are left alone that can be scary, or misleading, or when your mind can play tricks on you.”  

Photo Credit: NBA

One of the ways Love has managed his mental health is by helping other young men to realize that, “Everyone is going through something.” He is currently starting a foundation focusing on mental health with an emphasis on assisting young boys. He feels deeply connected to others who have struggled with mental health issues and is eager to work with them. Love has mentioned that he would work with another NBA player, Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks, who has also dealt with similar issues. 

Terry Bradshaw, NFL quarterback, sports announcer, 4x Super Bowl Champion, and 2X Super Bowl MVP, has also come out and spoke about his battle with depression, stating, “I thought maybe I could help people with awareness, help men get the strength and courage… I have run into people who have made fun of me, some of my colleagues. I’ve had people try to make light of it. Depression is not something you make light of. It’s serious.” 


Larry Sanders, who played professional basketball for the Milwaukee Bucks, has also dealt with mental health issues since he was a kid.


When he got to the league, he received some unwarranted attention, but that comes with the job. “so, there’s just no time to focus on your mental health.” Sanders said. In 2016, he announced he would check himself into a program at Rogers Memorial Hospital to treat his anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. He noticed the negative impact his mental health was causing in his relationships and wanted to get ahead of his issues.

Photo Credit: NBA

In a video by the Player’s Tribune, Sanders talked about what he learned after receiving treatment. “I came to realize what is important and what to put my time and energy into.” He later would decide to walk away from the sport he loved because, at the time, it was not what he wanted to put his time and energy into. “I want to open that door for guys… It’s hard for people in my field to respect mental health. We say that the game is 90 percent mental, but yet mental health doesn’t get the respect of like an ACL (knee injury).” Sanders said. 


Imani Boyette, who plays for the Dallas Wings, has also lived with depression since childhood.


As for many people who suffer mental health issues, Boyette felt that her presence on earth was doing more harm than good, and at age ten attempted suicide.  It took some time for her to speak out on her issues, but with help from her WNBA platform, she has become an enormous asset in breaking the stigma of mental health in athletes. She serves as a camp counselor at Sparks of Hope, a nonprofit that assists in helping child survivors find a voice and overcome their abuse. 

Photo Credit: Chicago Sky

Just having prominent professional athletes like Kevin Love, Trae Young, Terry Bradshaw, Larry Sanders, and Imani Boyette share their stories on their mental health struggles has had a significant impact beyond the sports world. The stigma associated with mental health is being reduced slowly, but surely. Athletes who previously would have been reluctant to seek help, are now reaching out. We can only hope that this will persuade other professional athletes and celebrities to bring this issue to the forefront. 

The key to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health is to speak up, share your story, be kind, check in on your loved ones, and encouraging people to seek help. The battles we face as individuals are never seen or known by others. However, you must know you are not alone and that everyone experiences these feelings at one point or time in life. Do not be afraid to reach out and remember what Fitzgerald said, “This too shall pass.”


We here at Franchise Sports Media encourage anyone who is having thoughts of hurting themselves or others to please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or N.A.M.I. at 800-950-6264. You are not in this alone and if you are in a crisis, please call either number.

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-Ashly Dickinson – Franchise Sports Media

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