Let’s Hear It for NFL Players Tackling Mental Health Stigma

More teams should emulate the Indianapolis Colts’ Kicking the Stigma campaign.

Posted Feb 08, 2021

Chris Moore/Unsplash
Source: Chris Moore/Unsplash

With Super Bowl LV behind us, it’s a fitting time to recognize the extraordinary contributions professional athletes and franchises can make—off the field.

Late last year, Indianapolis Colts’ linebacker Darius Leonard opened up about his struggles with depression and anxiety. Since then, he’s taken a key role in raising awareness of mental health as part of the team’s Kicking the Stigma campaign.

As a family-focused mental health attorney, I routinely see how the stigma long associated with mental illness can prevent individuals and families from seeking out much-needed counsel and treatment. Misplaced feelings of shame and ill-conceived perceptions concerning certain diagnoses make it all too easy to delay seeking help or outright deny that a loved one might have a serious condition. Too often, this leads to crises, including hospitalizations, arrests, and estrangement between family members.

Traditional ideas of masculinity, especially when it comes to asking for help, can make it especially challenging for men to overcome the stigma of mental illness, even if it means easing the suffering of a loved one. And while a lot of men no longer subscribe to such ideas, there are still plenty of them—as well as women—who find it extraordinarily difficult to accept mental health diagnoses within their families and embrace the requisite next steps.

This thinking illustrates the power behind the concept of football players openly discussing their mental health issues, including how they sought help and got better. If such archetypes of masculinity can admit vulnerability, their devoted and largely male fanbase might find it more possible to do the same.

The pandemic has made such awareness-raising all the more crucial. COVID-19 has brought illness and death, financial hardship and uncertainty, and isolation and loneliness. Surging rates of infection have come alongside exponentially increasing feelings of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. Treatment and counsel will be necessary for many people experiencing such challenges, but only if they—and often families—can reject mental health stigma in favor of a more open-minded, empathetic perspective. Crucially, they must accept that mental health issues are not a sign of weakness but simply conditions that can improve with treatment.

It can only help to have more athletes—and other celebrity figures—take the brave step of publicly discussing their personal experiences with mental health issues. Their candor can literally save lives.