Mental Health and sports psychology

            If you have followed me, you know my story, if you haven’t then here is a quick rundown. When I was 32 I partied for 2 days in Atlantic City, drove home, fell asleep at the wheel, and crashed my car into an off duty cop. What followed was a lot of self-awareness, especially when it came to mental health. I was diagnosed with PTSD 8 years after my last deployment in Afghanistan. Until then, it never crossed my mind as something that could happen to me, it meant I was mentally weak, in my mind. How could an athlete, an Airman, a Dad, have problems with mental illness? I thought I was too tough.

That was the stigma that was engraved into my mind. But that is not how the world and the mind works. I had to teach myself it is ok, to not be ok, in order to get better. And although it’s a life long journey to continue to get better every day, it was the best thing to ever happen to me. Acceptance.

Ben Simmons shot two three-point shots yesterday like it was nothing, but to the NBA world, it was a huge thing. After the game, the story about Ben seeing a sports psychologist cycled around. It was originally said in a Jackie MacMullen, of ESPN, piece a few months back that Ben has sought professional help to get over the mental block of shooting a basketball. Much like his mentor, Lebron James did throughout his career. See what we miss as fans are the pressure on these kids to perform at a young age can be too much for them, AND THAT’S OK. And lucky for Ben and 76ers fans, he accepted it and attacked it head-on.

Since yesterday there has been a lot of talk about sports psychology, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote for a class in college. I’ve always been keen on the idea of anxiety and depression in athletes and I think, with all the buzz going around, it’s a good idea to share the essay I wrote.

So here it is:

The Stigma of Mental Health in Sports

And How NBA players are Changing it.

Mental health does not discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are rich, poor, black, white, male, or female. There is a stigma, however, when it comes to mental health and athletes. Professional athletes are heroes, strong, fast, and tough. They can’t have mental health problems, because that makes them weak, soft, and a headcase. Headcase, a word used to describe a player that cannot perform on the floor, or sometimes allows their anger to get the best of them. Imagine dealing with anxiety, or with depression, and wanting to discuss it, wanting to fix it, but knowing that if you do, people will call you soft, weak, or a headcase. These problems are not just for regular ordinary people, anyone no matter how tough or big or fast is susceptible to mental health. Again, mental health does not discriminate.

            Depression is a world that no one should ever experience. But still, people do. All kinds of people. Athletes too. Imagine living in a world where you have millions of dollars, in the spotlight all the time, fans everywhere love you, but still, you feel all alone. Nothing but darkness around you all the time, pain and fear take over your body, your will to do normal basic everyday things is gone, but yet you can’t talk about it. Because if you do, you’re soft, you’re weak, or you’re a head case.

            Get up, shake it off, be a man, and get over it, feelings are for girls, these are statements heard throughout locker rooms all over. Athletes, especially male athletes, are taught that if they succumb to their feelings that it makes them less of a man or less of an athlete. There is a fear surrounding mental illness in sports, there is a stigma placed on athletes about mental illness, and because of that, it goes untreated, festering inside, eating at them from the inside out until one day they break down and lose it.

Jeff Zillgett in his article for The USA Today quoted Dr. Bernard Vittone saying “Men, in general, are less likely to go to treatment because of the stigma where it implies, they’re weak or somehow less of a man if they seek treatment,” Vittone said. “In fact, men are much more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol. … men try to self-medicate with alcohol because it’s more socially acceptable.” (Zillgitt, 2013). This is the stigma that haunts male athletes, and it needs to change, and NBA players are pioneering the movement to change it.

In 2013 Harvard University did a survey among elite NFL players that measured hypermasculinity, attitudes towards mental illness, and attitude towards getting help for mental illness (Jones, 2016). The study reached out to 4536 retired NFL questions, 86 did the survey (Jones, 2016). The survey asked a series of questions surrounding the topics and had the players score each question one through five, with 1 being totally agreed and 5 being totally disagreed (Jones, 2016). For hypermasculinity scores ranged from 9 to 45, with the higher score to be more hypermasculine, attitude towards mental health ranged 34 to 170, with higher meaning more favorable, and attitude towards getting help ranged from 24 to 124, with lower scores indicated less likely to get help (Jones, 2016).

It was found that generally, those surveyed had more positive attitudes towards getting help, more positive to about help-seeking, and high scores of masculinities (Jones, 2016). However, despite these findings, some comments through the surveys showed a bad attitude towards mental health and further pushed the stigma behind it. Things like “it’s shameful to have a mental illness” and “I would feel uncomfortable to go to a professional because of what other people were to think”, were said by some of the athletes surveyed (Jones, 2016). This mindset and the fear and stigma behind mental health is still carried with our athletes.

It was found that higher hypermasculinity levels were correlated with an unfavorable perception of mental illness and unfavorable willingness to seek help (Jones, 2016). It also found that retired players were more favorable to mental health and help, and also that married athletes were more favorable too. (Jones, 2016). As compared to retired athletes, younger college-level athletes had a much more negative view of mental health and willingness to get help. College athletes expressed fear of losing playing time or scholarship, along with social acceptance and fear of perception (Jones, 2016). “Compounded by the hypermasculine environment, where mental illness is stigmatized, college athletes may neglect mental health needs in fear of being perceived as weak” (Smith, 2008).

Young athletes are suffering, athletes are suffering, every day dealing with the darkness, pain, uncertainty, and loneliness that comes along with mental illness, all because of a stigma surrounding it that tells them they are weak, soft, a headcase, or they should be ashamed of it. It’s time to change that stigma, and let them know it is ok to reach out, it doesn’t make you less of a man or weak, and NBA players are at the forefront of this movement. NBA players are opening up about battles with mental health and how it is affecting their lives. When these players open up and tell their story, they make mental health less stigmatized and show athletes of all ages that it is ok to ask for help.

In recent years players have opened up, disused their situations on twitter, in The Players Tribune, and in an interview. These are their stories.

Kevin Love

            Kevin Love had a panic attack. It was during a game against the Hawks (Love, 2018). It was so severe that he had to leave. No one knew what had happened or why he left. He played in the next game and everything was fine. From there the Cavaliers went and found him a therapist (Love, 2018). Even though Love was skeptical he still went. He talked and made progress with himself. But still, no one knew.

            To Kevin, mental health “was a form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different” (Love, 2018). Being open about his mental health problems was something that in his eyes made him seem weak or not a “man”.  He is a two time All-NBA second team, five-time all-star, and NBA champion, but in spite of all these accomplishments Love was afraid to address his mental state to the public. One of the best players in the NBA was afraid to address his health, because of a stigma that is around that having mental health problems made you weak.

            Love, in his letter for The Player’s Tribune, discusses openly how the stigma or narrative of being an athlete, of “being a man” affected him and his willingness to open up about his struggles. From a kid, he was taught to “be strong” and “get through it”, for his whole life he was under the belief that he needed to hide his struggles in order to succeed and be a man. It wasn’t until DeMar DeRozan opened up and made comments about his struggle with depression that Love saw it was ok to open up about his, which he says “has been therapeutic” (Bishara, 2018). DeMar opening up helped Love open up and helped remove the stigma of mental health which helped Love get better.

DeMar DeRozan

            It all started with a tweet, “this depression gets the best of me…”. It’s so rare to see a professional athlete talk openly on a public platform about their mental health. Especially a guy like DeMar, top 10 pick, 4-time all-star, and All-NBA 2nd and 3rd team honors. DeMar is a baller, from the outside his life looks great, pro basketball player, money, and fame, what could possibly be wrong with him.

“We’re all human”, DeRozan says in an interview in the Toronto Star, and when it is broken down that way the fame, the game, or the money doesn’t matter. DeRozan is open about his times and battles with depression, how he regardless of outside factors felt completely alone and sad.  He discusses how it would get the best of him, even though he was surrounded by the love of family and friends.

It took DeMar 28 years to finally open up about what he was going through. Athletes are supposed to be hero’s and are perceived to have it all, to open up about depression is true bravery. And it is a good thing he did, Kevin Love is known to credit DeMar’s bravery as a reason why he was able to open up about his problems. Even though the stigma of mental health and the narratives that surround it these players were able to open up to millions of people about their struggles.

Royce White

“I’m actually starting an entire campaign, raising awareness to mental illness, and destigmatizing it.”  Royce White was the number 16 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. White found himself in a battle with the team who drafted him, the Houston Rockets. There was a fight because White, who has an anxiety disorder especially associated with heights had a fear of flying, and in the NBA, you can take up to 98 flights a year (Zillgitt, 2013). Although White hasn’t found his place yet playing in the NBA, he is in the G-League, he has become a pioneer and outspoken in destigmatizing how we view mental illness. He can be seen randomly on twitter tweeting #bewell, he uses the platform to reach out and discuss how he is dealing with his mental state. A guy like White, although not a star of any kind, just opening up and talking about his experience is what we need to help remove the negative notion of mental health.

            As more players open up, and mental health becomes less stigmatized, players all over will be more willing to seek treatment. The players we look up to, our heroes, they are human too, and mental health does not discriminate, and now that we are finding out about it, it opens the door to everyone to go out and get help. These players, in their letters, tweets, interviews are screaming out “It’s ok to have mental health problems, it is ok to ask for help.”

            The stigma around mental health and hypermasculinity needs to go away. It is ok to be a little messed up, everyone is. Even the big, tough, fast, and strong athletes can be affected and hurt by it, they can man up and admit it, that means everyone can. Time to remove the mental health stigma in sports and NBA players are the pioneers in doing that.

When I got into my accident, I had a ton of pressure on me. How could I be a good dad? Is my job enough to provide for a family? Normal stuff that everyone deals with, but mix it with depression and PTSD symptoms, and it messed me up. These athletes are the same as me, even the same as you, the pressure can get to them, and some can handle it, some need some help.

Ben Simmons embraced his own mental health, even knowing the story would get out, and attacked his problems, and is on track to become one of the greats because of it. He isn’t going to be the best shooter in the league by any means, but he wasn’t afraid if the bullshit stigma that can come with seeing a psychologist. And I can say that now because this is no longer an academic paper. It’s time for a change, and that change needs to be investing in these players’ mental health and understanding that even our heroes are human too.


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