Professional Athletes Speak Out About Mental Illness



Mental illness is extremely prevalent throughout our country. According to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 44 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness in 2015, which is the most recent year for available numbers. That’s nearly one in five people aged 18 or over.

And yet, by and large, disorders of a psychiatric nature remain a taboo topic. Many times, the individual who suffers is ashamed, the families are embarrassed. The same parent who would easily speak of a child’s broken leg may not readily discuss a child’s broken spirit.

It is not uncommon for celebrities from the entertainment industry to speak of their battles, but historically this candor has rarely extended to the sports world, particularly for male athletes.

After all, such men especially in team sports such as football and basketball are expected to be strong, dominant, competitive, bigger-than-life leaders who rarely display weakness. That’s why when professional athletes talk of their personal involvement with mental illness, it is a true game changer.

In recent years, these athletes include Jerry West (NBA) and Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer. Both of these men have struggled with clinical depression.  Three years ago, long before his recent Olympic success, Phelps considered suicide—his world was that dark.

Professional football is arguably the most “manly” of the male-dominated sports. Many players in the National Football League are placed on pedestals, viewed as modern day heroes by legions of fans, making disclosure of a psychiatric illness even more challenging.

New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, is on a personal mission to change that reality by speaking out and increasing awareness. He refers to mental health awareness and acceptance as “the civil rights movement of our era.”

Those of us in the behavioral health field commend every athlete, male and female alike, for their honesty and vulnerability regarding this topic. Only by reducing the stigma and commensurate shame will people finally feel free to seek and find the help they need to embrace healthy and happy lives.