Column: Why athletes discussing mental health is so important

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love watches from the bench in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

Sports and mental health have been, historically, two things not often associated with each other.

The CTE and concussion research associated with NFL players is one thing. That whole debate came to prominence, especially after the death of Junior Seau. But everyday mental health issues which affect so many people in the world – one in every four people will be affected by some mental illness at one point or another in their lives, according to the World Health Organization – never really comes to the surface of discussion when talking about elite athletes.

It all goes back to the stigma associated with mental health. Depression and anxiety, in particular, have a stigma that makes people unwilling to talk about their issues. When you put elite athletes, people who are supposed to be big, strong and without any weakness in the eyes of fans, under the microscope, the stigma is magnified even greater.

Those who play sports at the highest level are expected to be Adonises, meaning underlying mental health struggles have to be stifled, buried inside as to not show the world. In turn, kids and adults who are fans of elite athletes and aspire to be like them try to act tough and bury their feelings, too. If my favorite athlete is “perfect” in terms of skill and has no mental health issues to speak of, then I, too, have to keep my feelings and struggles inside.

But of course, that is not the case. The discussion around mental health is crucial for a normal person, and is just as crucial for an athlete. Athletes don’t need to be silenced when it comes to mental health just because it could make them look weaker.

And that is exactly why the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love are so special. These are two elite level athletes, some of the best players in the NBA, who were willing to share their struggles with mental health. In discussing battles with depression and anxiety or panic attacks, they have now broken the mental health barrier that plagues sports in our society.

DeRozan was one of the first major athletes, and perhaps the most prominent athlete, to discuss his struggles. At 6:06 a.m. on Feb. 17, he broke the barrier with one single tweet, which prompted an amazing set of responses from fans and fellow athletes alike.

“This depression get the best of me...” DeRozan tweeted.

 

“It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” the 28-year-old Toronto Raptors all-star said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “We all got feelings... all of that. Sometimes... it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

DeRozan opening up was a very real, very honest expression of how it can feel to struggle with mental illness, let alone struggle with it while playing basketball at the highest level.

In doing so, DeRozan also opened up the path for athletes to come clean and talk about mental health, which hopefully can open the door for even more discussion on mental health.

Love, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, was the next major athlete to step up. A lot of fuss was made over what happened to Love during a game against the Atlanta Hawks in November, in which he went to the locker room and was later rushed to the hospital after having a panic attack on the bench, something people didn’t know at the time. Love came clean about the event in a piece on The Players’ Tribune.

“I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak,” Love said in his story. “Honestly, I just didn’t think I needed it. It’s like the playbook said — figure it out on your own, like everyone else around me always had.”

Love, too, struggled with opening up against the status quo, but is glad he did and said DeRozan could help a lot more people than you think.

What resonated most with me in Love’s piece, however, was when he said, “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see.” It’s a very real thought that people don’t often consider today. So many people have demons they struggle to cope with, but never let them out or consider opening up.

When elite athletes like DeRozan and Love come out and express their feelings like they did, it sends a message to everyone, fans of sports and non-fans alike, that even the best and strongest of us can struggle.

Their words and openness meant a lot to me, personally. While I still struggle to open up about my battles with anxiety and mild depression, either due to the stigma of mental health or even just the anxiety to genuinely talk about my issues, reading about DeRozan and Love made me feel more accepting of myself. It’s just one step, but the acceptance that mental health issues affect me and so many people is a significant step.

That’s why it is so important, so crucial for athletes to open up about mental health. Not just for me. Not just for other athletes. But for everybody who reads about their openness.

It’s vital that the discussion about mental health continues and I hope more and more athletes and celebrities will continue to fuel the discussion.


Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor  for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at christopher.hanna@uconn.edu. He tweets @realchrishanna.