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Breakthrough the Silence: Tackling Mental Health in Football

Mental health
© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a sport known for its physical toughness and high-stakes competition, the mental health of football players is often overlooked. As the pressures of the game intensify, the silent struggles of athletes are coming to light, highlighting the urgent need for mental health awareness in football.

Football is a game of strategy, strength and skill, but beneath the surface, many players grapple with immense mental health challenges. The stigma surrounding mental health in sports has long prevented athletes from seeking the help they need. However, recent initiatives and personal stories from players are breaking down these barriers, advocating for a more compassionate and proactive approach to mental well-being in the football community. By addressing mental health openly, we can create a safer, more supportive environment that prioritizes the holistic health of every player, both on and off the field.

Mental health
© Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Evolution of Mental Health

The trajectory of mental health awareness traces back through centuries of societal evolution, influenced by a tapestry of cultural, social and scientific threads. Ancient civilizations often attributed mental well-being to spiritual or supernatural causes. Early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle acknowledged the significance of emotional equilibrium and the mind's role in overall health.

In medieval times, mental health was often entwined with notions of sin and demonic possession. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that a medical perspective emerged, marked by the establishment of asylums and the advent of psychiatric treatments.

The 20th century heralded a profound shift. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s and 1970s transitioned care from institutions to community-based services. Concurrently, psychotherapy and psychotropic medications burgeoned.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a burgeoning awareness, especially among youth, fueled by seminal literary works like “Prozac Nation” and “An Unquiet Mind.” These narratives illuminated the shadows surrounding depression and bipolar disorder.

In the 21st century, mental health awareness burgeoned, buoyed by the amplifying effect of social media. Celebrities and influencers used their platforms to destigmatize mental health issues, catalyzing a global conversation.

Noteworthy milestones punctuate this journey:
  • 1949: Mental Health America established Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.

  • 1960s and 1970s: The deinstitutionalization movement catalyzed a shift to community-based care.

  • 1980s and 1990s: Advances in psychotherapy and medication expanded treatment options.

  • 2000s: Social media emerged as a potent force in destigmatizing mental health.

  • 2010s: The #MentalHealthMatters movement gained momentum, amplifying personal narratives.

Key figures in this narrative include luminaries such as Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories laid groundwork for modern therapy, and Kay Redfield Jamison, whose advocacy illuminated bipolar disorder's complexities.

The journey of mental health awareness is a testament to humanity’s capacity for growth and empathy. Though challenges persist, strides made underscore the transformative potential of awareness and advocacy.

Mental Health and the NFL

In recent years, the NFL has made notable strides in prioritizing mental health and wellness among its players, marking a significant departure from past stigmatization and silence. Formerly, mental health struggles were often concealed due to societal pressure, but players like Brandon Marshall and Chris Johnson have bravely shared their experiences, fostering a more open dialogue.

The NFL, in collaboration with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), established the Comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness Committee in 2019. This committee spearheads various initiatives such as mental health screenings, counseling services and educational programs for players, coaches and club personnel. Additionally, partnerships with mental health organizations offer crucial resources and support for players and their families.

Prominent players like AJ Brown and Carl Nassib have leveraged their platforms to advocate for mental health awareness and destigmatization. Brown, in particular, emphasizes the importance of seeking help, encouraging others to prioritize their mental well-being.

The league's "Total Wellness" initiative, launched in 2012, underscores its commitment to mental health by incorporating psychologists' expertise to educate players and stakeholders about its significance both on and off the field.

While acknowledging that more work lies ahead, the NFL's proactive approach in addressing mental health represents a substantial leap forward. By fostering an open dialogue and promoting a culture of support, the league is instrumental in reducing stigma and championing overall wellness within its community.

Bobby Wagner’s Trauma

In January 2023, a harrowing incident during an NFL game underscored the importance of addressing mental health within the league. Fans, players and personnel, including Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner, were shaken when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after a tackle. Quick medical intervention saved Hamlin's life, but the event left an indelible mark.

Reflecting on the aftermath, Wagner emphasized the necessity for players to process such traumatic events. He urged players to confront their emotions openly, challenging the notion that expressing vulnerability undermines masculinity. Drawing from his own experiences, Wagner recounted a similar incident in 2015 involving his former teammate Ricardo Lockette during a game against the Dallas Cowboys. Lockette's serious injury prompted Wagner to stress the importance of acknowledging and discussing the emotional toll of such events.

"In this sport, it’s such a quote, unquote 'manly sport,'" Wagner said. "The thing that we’re taught to do is to hide your feelings, hide your emotions. But talking about your feelings, talking about things that affect you mentally, physically, are more manly than anything because it takes a lot of courage to talk about those things."

Wagner's advocacy for open dialogue echoes the NFL's ongoing efforts to prioritize mental health and wellness. By fostering an environment where players feel supported in discussing their emotional well-being, the league continues to evolve in its commitment to overall player welfare.

Dak Prescott’s Grief

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott's courageous disclosure sheds further light on the mental health challenges faced by NFL players. Prescott's journey through grief and emotional turmoil, stemming from his mother's battle with cancer, the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the tragic loss of his brother to suicide, resonates deeply with many.

In an interview for "In Depth With Graham Bensinger," Prescott candidly revealed his struggle with anxiety and depression, particularly in the wake of his brother's passing. The quarterback's openness underscores the importance of seeking support during times of emotional distress.

Reflecting on his experience, Prescott emphasized the significance of community and connection in navigating adversity. He recognized that sharing one's struggles with loved ones and seeking help is a crucial step towards healing.

In a proactive move to combat the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, Prescott launched the "Ask 4 Help" campaign during National Suicide Prevention Month in September 2021. Through this initiative, Prescott aims to destigmatize seeking help for mental health challenges and raise awareness about the importance of prioritizing mental well-being.

Prescott's advocacy serves as a powerful reminder of the NFL's evolving stance on mental health, encouraging players to prioritize their emotional wellbeing and seek support when needed. By amplifying his voice and sharing his own journey, Prescott contributes to a culture of openness and support within the NFL community.

AJ Brown’s Depression

A poignant testament to the ongoing battle against mental health stigma within the NFL emerged through Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Brown's courageous revelation. In November 2021, while playing for the Tennessee Titans, Brown bravely shared his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts in a now-deleted Instagram video.

Describing a harrowing night in November 2020 when he contemplated taking his own life, Brown laid bare his internal turmoil. His candid admission sheds light on the pervasive societal pressure men face to suppress their emotions, a sentiment echoed in his poignant observation during a subsequent press conference.

Addressing the media, Brown lamented the societal indifference toward men's emotional well-being, emphasizing the need for greater empathy and understanding. His remarks underscore the entrenched stigma that often impedes men from seeking help for mental health issues, as corroborated by research published in the American Journal of Men's Health.

For Brown, therapy proved instrumental in his journey toward mental wellness, a path he continues to tread. His message to others, especially men, resonates with a call to action, encouraging individuals to shed the constraints of societal expectations and prioritize their mental well-being.

In navigating his own struggles and advocating for mental health awareness, Brown exemplifies the resilience and courage needed to confront the stigma surrounding mental illness. His willingness to share his story not only fosters empathy and understanding but also emboldens others to seek help and support without fear of judgment.

Carl Nassib's Groundbreaking Story

In June 2021, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Nassib etched his name into NFL history by courageously coming out as gay in a candid Instagram post, marking a monumental moment for LGBTQ+ representation in professional football. Nassib's revelation, a bold step forward in a traditionally heteronormative sport, reverberated throughout the league and beyond.

In a subsequent news conference, Nassib expressed the profound relief he felt in shedding the burden of secrecy surrounding his sexual orientation. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faced while closeted, highlighting the emotional toll of living a double life and the liberation he experienced by embracing his authentic self.

As a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ+ advocacy and mental health awareness, Nassib announced a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health support for LGBTQ+ youth. Nassib's generosity and activism continued into the following year, with another $100,000 donation during Pride Month in 2022.

Nassib's philanthropy and advocacy serve as a beacon of hope for LGBTQ+ youth struggling with their identities. The stark reality of the disproportionate rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ youth underscores the critical importance of organizations like The Trevor Project in providing support and fostering resilience.

In Nassib's bold declaration and ongoing commitment to advocacy, the NFL community witnesses not only a historic moment of inclusivity but also a powerful reaffirmation of the league's potential to foster acceptance and support for all its members, regardless of sexual orientation.

Maxx Crosby's Advocacy

Amidst the spotlight of professional football, Crosby stands out as a beacon of mental health advocacy, openly sharing his journey of overcoming addiction and battling mental health challenges. The Las Vegas Raiders defensive end has become a vocal proponent for destigmatizing mental health issues, using his platform to raise awareness and offer support.

Crosby's candidness about his struggles with addiction and mental health, including anxiety and depression, serves as a powerful testament to resilience and perseverance. Through public interviews and statements, Crosby has emphasized the importance of seeking help and utilizing support systems, illustrating that it's okay not to be okay.

In his quest to prioritize mental wellness, Crosby has embraced therapy and mindfulness practices, underscoring the significance of self-care in managing mental health. Beyond personal growth, Crosby's commitment to advocacy extends to his philanthropic endeavors.

The establishment of the Maxx Crosby Foundation underscores his dedication to supporting causes close to his heart, including teen substance abuse intervention, youth health and wellness, and animal rescue. By leveraging his platform and partnering with mental health organizations, Crosby amplifies the conversation around mental health and encourages others to seek help without fear of judgment.

Through his transparency and activism, Crosby not only chips away at the stigma surrounding mental health but also empowers individuals to confront their own struggles with courage and resilience. His advocacy serves as a reminder of the transformative power of vulnerability and community support in promoting mental wellness.

Mental Health in the NCAA

Mental health has gradually emerged as a critical concern, with the NCAA recognizing its significance since the 1970s. The establishment of Division I, II and III sports programs in the late 20th century marked an institutional acknowledgment of the need to address mental health within college athletics.

The Pac-12 Conference study in 2015 shed light on the emotional strain experienced by athletes surpassing the NCAA's weekly activity limit, unveiling a mental health crisis exacerbated by demanding schedules. This revelation underscored the imperative for heightened mental health awareness within collegiate sports, especially during Mental Health Awareness Month in May, as recognized by the NCAA.

The pressures faced by collegiate football players, balancing athletic commitments with academic rigor and personal challenges, underscore the need for robust mental health support systems. Despite ongoing efforts by the NCAA to address mental health concerns, student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of distress.

Aaron Taylor, a revered figure in college football and advocate for mental health, has courageously shared his own struggles since childhood, championing the #SameHere movement. Taylor's advocacy echoes a growing awareness of the mental health crisis within college athletics, as underscored by the tragic loss of several student-athletes to suicide.

Dabo Swinney, coach of Clemson University's football team, exemplifies leadership in prioritizing mental health, fostering an environment where players feel encouraged to discuss their struggles openly. Swinney's approach cultivates a culture of support and acceptance, dismantling stigma and fostering healing.

For college football teams, prioritizing mental health entails not only providing resources and support but also nurturing a culture of openness and acceptance. By championing mental wellness, these teams can foster environments where student-athletes feel empowered to seek help, ultimately promoting their overall well-being and success both on and off the field.

Isaiah Woods’ Impact

In the realm of college football, Woods' most impactful play wasn't a touchdown catch but a courageous tweet that sparked a vital conversation. On May 29, 2016, Woods took to Twitter with a profound message: "This is me taking steps in the right direction to becoming myself again."

In the heartfelt 398-word disclosure that followed, Woods peeled back the layers of his most challenging year, revealing the inner turmoil that led him to reassess his path. From losing his passion for football amidst a promising career at Washington to grappling with debilitating depression and anxiety, Woods' transparency shed light on the often-hidden struggles of student-athletes.

His decision to step away from the game he loved was not an easy one, but it was a necessary step toward prioritizing his mental health. In an interview, Woods shared his initial reluctance to make a generic statement about leaving the team, realizing instead the power of honesty and vulnerability in destigmatizing mental health challenges.

Woods' story echoes the experiences of other college football players who have battled mental health obstacles in silence. From Clemson's Jay Guillermo to former Iowa State lineman Jacob Gannon, the journey to recovery is a testament to resilience and the importance of seeking support.

At Washington, Woods found solace in the unwavering support of his coaches and the guidance of the university's sport psychologist, Cassie Pasquariello. Through counseling and treatment, Woods learned to navigate his symptoms and prioritize his well-being.

Despite the uncertainty of his football future, Woods' decision to prioritize his mental health has been met with overwhelming support from those around him. His journey, marked by setbacks and triumphs, serves as a beacon of hope for others facing similar struggles.

As colleges increasingly prioritize mental health initiatives for student-athletes, Woods' story underscores the importance of destigmatizing mental illness and fostering a culture of support and understanding. Though the journey toward healing may be ongoing, Woods stands as a testament to the power of resilience, self-discovery and finding one's voice amidst adversity.

Coach Chris Petersen Departure

Petersen, a revered figure in college football, stunned the sports world when he decided to walk away from coaching at just 54, after a remarkable career spanning 13 years as a coach. Despite his impressive record of 147-38, Petersen revealed that the toll of college football on his mental health led him to make this difficult choice.

In a candid conversation on "The BluePrint Podcast" with Erik Korem, Petersen delved into the personal struggles he faced while coaching. Initially invigorated by his tenure at Boise State, Petersen found himself increasingly drained and cynical toward the end of his tenure. The pressures of the job, coupled with relentless scrutiny from the media and others, took a toll on his well-being. Even his wife noticed the change and suggested seeking help or exploring new opportunities.

When the opportunity to coach at Washington arose, Petersen saw it as a chance to escape his current challenges and embrace a fresh start. However, he soon realized that simply changing scenery wouldn't solve his underlying issues. Despite winning two Pac-12 titles with the Huskies, Petersen continued to struggle with the demands of the job and the lack of recovery time.

Reflecting on his coaching journey, Petersen acknowledged the relentless nature of the profession, which leaves little room for recovery and self-care. The constant demands, coupled with the advent of technology and social media, made it increasingly challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Ultimately, Petersen's decision to step away from coaching underscored the need for greater awareness and support for mental health in college football. While changes at the NCAA level are necessary, Petersen emphasized the importance of individual coaches seeking resources and prioritizing their well-being. As more coaches like Petersen and Matt Luke choose to prioritize mental health, the conversation around coaching and mental wellness continues to evolve, highlighting the need for systemic changes and greater support networks within the sport.

Foundations for Mental Health

The landscape of mental health awareness is rich and diverse, with numerous organizations dedicated to advancing the cause of mental well-being. Here are some noteworthy foundations:

  • Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: Committed to empowering recovery and well-being for individuals and families impacted by substance use and co-occurring mental health conditions.

  • American Psychiatric Association Foundation: Supporting outreach programs to advance quality mental health care and combat the stigma associated with mental illness.

  • Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: A leading non-governmental funder of mental health research grants, aiming to alleviate suffering through scientific breakthroughs.

  • Sista Afya: Focused on addressing mental health disparities within the Black community, providing support and resources for healing and resilience.

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): A nonprofit organization dedicated to advocacy, education, and support for individuals and families affected by mental illness, with a focus on reducing stigma.

  • The Jed Foundation (JED): Working to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among teens and young adults by providing skills and support for resilience.

  • Mental Health Foundation: Striving to create a society free from discrimination by offering information, support, and promoting positive mental health and well-being.

  • Active Minds: Engaging more than 1.9 million students annually in campus awareness campaigns, events and advocacy efforts to normalize conversations about mental health.

These foundations, alongside many others, play a crucial role in raising awareness, reducing stigma and providing support for those affected by mental illness. Supporting their initiatives contributes to fostering a more mentally healthy and compassionate society for all.

Proactively encouraging steps to address mental health and wellbeing is not just important—it's a compassionate necessity. By prioritizing mental health initiatives, we open doors to understanding and healing, breaking down the barriers of stigma that often leave individuals feeling isolated. Early intervention and accessible resources can transform lives, offering hope and support to those struggling with stress, anxiety and other challenges. This approach doesn't just improve individual lives—it fosters a community where empathy and support are at the forefront, nurturing a culture where everyone feels seen, heard and valued. Embracing mental wellness as a cornerstone of health empowers us all to live more fulfilling, connected and joyful lives.


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