Continuing the conversation
What we can learn from athletes' opening up about mental health
If there’s one thing we can learn from athletes who have opened up about mental health, it’s that talking leads to self-improvement, and hiding leads to self-destruction.
In March, NBA superstar Kevin Love revealed his mental health struggles with the world via The Players’ Tribune, to shine light on the topic and the importance of seeking help.
In the story titled “Everyone is Going Through Something,” Love wrote about a panic attack he suffered during a game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and how hesitant he was to talk about his feelings.
“Call it a stigma or call it fear or insecurity — you can call it a number of things — but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them,” Love wrote in the article.
Once he decided to get treatment, his life changed for the better. The Cavaliers found him a therapist and the sessions have worked wonders.
“In the short time I’ve been meeting with the therapist, I’ve seen the power of saying things out loud in a setting like that,” Love said. “And it’s not some magical process. It’s terrifying and awkward and hard, at least in my experience so far. I know you don’t just get rid of problems by talking about them, but I’ve learned that over time maybe you can better understand them and make them more manageable.”
The NBA isn’t the only league to see players open up about mental health struggles. It’s a prevalent issue in the NHL as well.
In September, New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner wrote about his addiction and bipolar diagnosis in The Athletic, and just eight days later, Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Parsons used the same outlet to share his experiences with anxiety and depression.
A common theme in both stories: the importance of seeking help.
Parsons wrote about missing his flight to the Flames’ development camp because of an emotional outburst on his way to the airport. While in the car with his mother, he ranted about suicide and a desperate need to end the pain. His mother forbade him from getting on the flight and called the Flames organization.
“It’s super hard to explain,” Parsons said in his story. “But people who have been in that state, they would know. I don’t think if I went on that plane it would’ve been good. I would’ve freaked out. I felt like a monster.”
Parsons received full support from the Flames and treatment from mental health professionals.
“That’s when things started going in the right direction,” he said. “It was my first step to getting better. Those problems can be eliminated like that” – he snapped his fingers – “and more people need to open up about it. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, talk to someone. I finally spoke up. I felt like I had a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders.”
Lehner’s story is quite different from that of Parsons, but still shows that seeking help is critical. He wrote about a panic attack he experienced during a game for the Buffalo Sabres in March and his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He also vividly described his recent journey through rehab at The Meadows in Arizona and the self-discovery that came with it.
“There were a lot of things growing up that I dealt with and were surrounded by,” Lehner said. “I saw and experienced things I want to forget. My personal battle was now complicated by my own childhood experiences of abuse, addiction and mental illness.”
Five weeks into treatment, Lehner was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I. He acknowledged that mental illness was not the sole reason for the bad decisions he made in his life, but that they definitely affected his mental state in ways he did not realize.
“The next few weeks in there would be life altering,” he said. “I started to get very emotional and determined. I wanted to feel happiness.”
In his story, Lehner wrote that he is now a happy man, trying to live each day in the moment. He’s back in the NHL, playing goalie for the New York Islanders.
“I never had the courage to get help earlier,” Lehner said. “I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie. I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”
These types of stories have also been written by NFL players, including Gerald McRath, a former linebacker for the Tennessee Titans.
In his piece for The Players’ Tribune titled, “I’m Not Crazy,” McRath wrote about the emotional pain he experienced after his season-ending knee injury in 2012. Despite working hard to bounce back in 2013, he was never the same again physically. Without football, he felt lost and like a failure.
“My self-loathing was constant, and it was exhausting — like, emotionally exhausting,” McRath said. “I just couldn’t get out of my own head. I was trapped. It got to the point where I couldn’t even sleep at night because I couldn’t turn my brain off.”
McRath turned to alcohol for self-medication, drinking two 24-ounce cans of beer a night for two years, while frequently experiencing panic attacks. It wasn’t until his wife, Genee, told him that he was depressed, that the road to recovery began.
“I don’t know why, but to that point, whenever I thought about mental illness, I thought about the Joker from the Batman movies,” he said. “I mean, he was insane, right? He was crazy. I don’t want to put too many labels on him because I understand now how dangerous stereotypes can be, but that’s the impression I got, and it stayed with me.”
It wasn’t the idea of help that scared McRath, but rather the stigma that comes with mental illness, if he were to tell somebody. It would confirm his biggest fear: That he was crazy.
After a drunk driving incident that put him in a North Carolina jail cell, he experienced a moment of introspection that would change his life forever.
“For almost three years, I held myself hostage,” he said. “I put on the mask. I hid my struggles from the world and from those closest to me. Why? Because as an athlete, that’s how I had been trained. I had been taught to persevere. To never show weakness. To be proud.”
Contemplating the choice between life and death inside that jail cell, McRath chose life. When he was released, he entered a rehabilitation program at the Eisenhower Clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I spent 30 days at Eisenhower,” McRath said, “and the most important thing that happened there was that I was able to talk to somebody about what I had been struggling with,” he said. “And instead of judging me or telling me I was crazy — which is what I feared the most — they told me that everything I was feeling was normal.”
McRath, just like Love, Parsons and Lehner, emphasized the importance of opening up.
“If you’re struggling, don’t wait for something bad to happen. Don’t wait for a wake-up call. Talk to somebody. It’s not as scary as you think. There is hope. There is light. Just talk to somebody. Because fighting alone is the worst way to fight.”
All four of these athletes have struggled emotionally, and while none of the causes are the same, seeking help was without a doubt the common denominator for their improved mental states.
If you are experiencing emotional pain, you must accept it and seek help. Mental illness takes on many forms, and can be caused by pretty much anything, whether it’s genetics, environment, a break-up or pressure to succeed. The list goes on and on. If it’s causing you pain and suffering, then you have to talk about it. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Kevin Love.
“No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt,” Love said. “And they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside.”