Mental Health Stigma in Sports — How Negative Messaging is Making It Harder for Athletes to Seek Help

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Photo Courtesy of jsindal on Flickr

Two weeks ago Junior Seau, one of the NFL’s most beloved, cheery and charismatic athletes, took his own life.

In support of the American Psychological Association’s Mental Health Blog Party as part of May is Mental Health Month, I would like to take a few paragraphs to call out the sports world on its dangerous messaging to athletes — messaging that is reinforcing stigma around mental illness.

Being perceived as weak or inferior — be it in mind or body — is in many ways the definition of failure in competitive sports. To many, the professional athlete must be the epitome of toughness, ruggedness and resilience. Athletes are led to believe — by coaches, media and fans — that exhibiting signs of a mental health need sends the message that they are weak-willed. The implications for their careers and their health are profound.

In a television interview shortly after Seau’s death, Marcellus Wiley, a former teammate of Seau’s and current NFL analyst on ESPN, said he could not understand why Seau did not ask for help if he did, in fact, have a mental health challenge. According to a Sports Illustrated article published this week by Jim Trotter:

Succumbing to injury was like submitting to an opponent. If Seau was hurt during training camp, he would have doctors treat him in his dorm room or at his home to prevent teammates from seeing him in a state of weakness. He had the same attitude off the field when it came to emotional pain, hiding his feelings behind a 1,000-watt smile and his disarming greeting: Bud-deeee! As saturated as we are with sports and its stars, the truth is we rarely know the people we follow, their character when they’re alone or behind closed doors, beyond the vision of prying eyes. To many of his friends Seau was transparent — always happy, never negative. But a gunshot and a 911 call changed that.

Just as in other facets of life, the adage should hold true for the mental health of professional athletes: open, honest communication is key. As long as we equate real, serious mental health issues with weakness and failure, we will continue to learn about gifted athletes, from gymnasts to linebackers, who suffered in silence until they could not take the pain anymore. The completed suicide of Seau, as well as mental health challenges revealed by other athletes such as Amanda Beard, Jerry West, Shawn Johnson and Ricky Williams, should represent an opportunity for a shift in messaging around what it takes to succeed in sports.

Professional athletes need a level playing field to communicate mental health needs, the same way they are expected to get help when they have a physical ailment.

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