Stigma of Mental Health in Sports Remains an Opponent

Mar 9, 2014

SportsPhoto courtesy of the Vancover Canucks.

As it does in many other facets of culture, mental health is stigmatized in the sports world. The thought of reaching out for help or acknowledging that one has a mental health problem seems as if it is against the rules, just as it is to be offside in football or for a pitcher to scuff up a baseball.

While players experiencing physical injuries also hide or play through injuries like those whose might be experiencing a mental health issue, there is a whole team of physical trainers and therapists standing at attention to pop the shoulder back in place or provide surgery if necessary and get the athlete back on the field. But for a mental health condition, the support network is often non existent.

“It’s difficult to address because many people still view it as a weakness,” said Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks in the National Hockey League (NHL), about discussing mental health issues amongst athletes. In 2011, Bieksa’s teammate and close friend Rick Rypien died by suicide after years of struggling with clinical depression.

Mental illness is often much more difficult to discuss than a physical injury. It’s not easy to describe something in your brain and identify the exact course of action needed to fix it. It’s not like looking at an x-ray of a broken bone and saying this is what needs to be done. Finding a solution isn’t easy and mental illness is often viewed as a sign of weakness. In a world of machismo, weakness isn’t something you want to acknowledge. While getting treatment is a struggle in itself, eliminating stigma is one of the steps that can help encourage athletes, and the general public alike, to get treatment.

Last season the Vancouver Canucks, along with the other six NHL teams in Canada, led an initiative called Hockey Talks to eliminate the misconceptions and stigma associated with mental illness. This season, the seven teams each participated again by holding a Hockey Talks night in January where they offered resources and information about mental health.

“By sharing personal stories of struggles, people can and will relate. The more people talk, the more people will understand,” said Bieksa.

The response that the Canucks have received from the community is incredibly encouraging said Alex Mitchell, director of community partnerships for the Vancouver Canucks.

“The letters we receive are inspiring and humbling,” she said. “People are thanking us for helping, for talking and for sharing our stories.”

NAMI honored the Vancouver Canucks with the Rona and Ken Purdy award at the NAMI National Convention in 2013. This moment stands out to Mitchell as the most memorable part of their efforts.

“It was a milestone for our team, but also for me personally,” Mitchell said. “To be recognized by NAMI was totally unexpected, and it made us feel that we were doing something very special. The response from the attendees at the conference was so overwhelming. It is a moment I will never forget.”

Issues surrounding mental health and stigma of course don’t exist solely in Canadian NHL teams, or just the NHL. While Hockey Talks might be the most coordinated effort amongst teams in professional sports, individual athletes are also leading the way.

In the National Football League, Brandon Marshall donned lime green cleats to raise awareness during a game during the 2013 season in October. Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2010. Although he was fined for a uniform violation—$10,500 to be exact—he says it was worth it. Marshall tweeted out a photo of his notification letter from the NFL, adding, “Football is my platform not my purpose. This fine is nothing compared to the conversation started & awareness raised.”

In the National Basketball Association, Royce White, the Houston Rockets 2012 first-round draft pick, has been extremely vocal about his battles with anxiety. His anxiety has prohibited him from flying, which makes travelling to games during the season, when there are often quick turnarounds between games, difficult. Although his NBA career has not gotten off to the start he (or the Houston Rockets) would have liked, White is unrelenting in his attempts to make the NBA provide more accommodations to athletes living with mental illness. He was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Philadelphia 76ers on July 13, 2013 but was waived by the team on October 25. However, White signed a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings on March 6, 2014 and assigned to their D-League team, the Reno Bighorns. His NBA career isn't over just yet.

In Major League Baseball, there have been a number of players in recent seasons who have had mental health impact their careers. Shane Victorino of the Boston Red Sox was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child and has had to battle with his condition as an MLB player.  Victorino still has been able to become a three-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time All Star despite his battle with ADHD sometimes interfering. Victorino is still on medication for his ADHD and has even become a spokesman for the illness in recent years.

As more athletes come forward with their own personal experiences, or experiences of friends and loved ones, hopefully the stigma of mental illness will continue to be dispelled. At least for Hockey Talks and battling mental health in the NHL, there appears to positive movement; interest around the league appears to be increasing. “I’ve received lots of support from players around the league,” said Bieksa. “They’re asking how they can be a part of the process. Hopefully Hockey Talks will continue to grow and reach more fans.”

Athletes serve as role models to many and the actions they take are noted. Each athlete that stands up to show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and something that can be managed, can provide hope to not just the fans of his or her team but for everyone who lives with a mental illness.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).