Health With a Capital H

Mental Illnesses Exist in the Land of Giants, Patriots, and Beyond

February 2, 2012

By James Wonsowicz, Communications Associate

Football player sitting in locker room thinking

With the Super Bowl quickly approaching, football fans around the world are preparing to watch some of today’s elite athletes face off in a thrilling display of top-notch athletic skill and ability.  It’s what we as fans have come to expect every time we watch professional football—and that puts a lot of pressure on the athletes.  But what happens when a player suffers from mental illness and isn’t able to cope?

Physical Prejudice

Current Baltimore Ravens running back Ricky Williams is probably one of the most well-known cases of professional football players suffering from mental illness in the National Football League (NFL).  Williams suffers from social anxiety disorder—a condition he has battled his entire NFL career, and probably long before that.  While playing for the New Orleans Saints, Williams noticed that there is a physical prejudice within the NFL.  He says “When it’s a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it’s OK.  When it’s a broken soul, it’s like a weakness.”  When Williams worked up the courage to take his emotional problems to his coaching staff, one of his coaches told him to “stop being a baby and just play football.” 

In 2011, Miami Dolphin receiver Brandon Marshall—this year’s Pro Bowl Most Valuable Player—admitted that he suffers from borderline personality disorder, in which he experiences long-term patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions, toward himself and others.  He was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder after seeking help, following advice from his former Miami teammate, Ricky Williams.  Marshall, who has been known to shoot off at the mouth toward other players rather frequently, has chosen to become “an ambassador for mental health.”  In October 2011, Marshall delivered a speech, “Mental Illness Isn’t a Game Stopper,” to a group of Harvard students.

Organizations Shining the Light on Athletes’ Mental Health

Although mental health may still take a backseat to physical health in the minds of NFL coaching staffs and other personnel, it is gaining a great deal of awareness, due in part to higher rates of concussions among players as well as the promotion of good mental health by the athletes such as Marshall and Williams.  In addition to pro athlete advocates, there are a few organizations—such as Retired Pro Athlete Assistance (RAPP) and P.A.S.T. Retired Athletes Medical Resource Group—that help athletes manage both their physical and behavioral health needs. 

NFL veteran Ray Lucas received assistance for his mental conditions from P.A.S.T.  During a period of isolation he experienced while recovering from on-field injuries, Lucas developed severe depression and anxiety.  He had the following to say about his experience:

“My experience with P.A.S.T. just blows my mind.  They have lifted me up out of a very dark place, and I know because of P.A.S.T. I will once again be able to function and be a great husband and father.  With P.A.S.T. in my life, I don’t feel like killing myself anymore.  There is now light at the end of the tunnel.” 

The NFL is also trying to expand awareness of this issue by partnering with the Satcher Health Leadership Institute of Morehouse School of Medicine to create a program called NFL Community Huddle:  Taking a Goal Line Stand for Your Mind & Body.  This program—which includes a series of town hall-style meetings to educate people about mental illnesses—aims to get communities to work together and help tackle depression, financial stress, and other mental health issues.  The program’s goal is eliminate stigma by having doctors and retired pro athletes on hand at these meetings to create awareness and share their own personal battles with mental illness, giving hope to others dealing with similar disorders. 

These modern-day gladiators push themselves to the grind, week in and week out, to entertain fans around the world, so it seems fitting that their needs, both physical and mental, be addressed.  In 2010, 23-year-old Denver Broncos receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide after experiencing depression following a knee surgery that had him sidelined for the entire season.  People close to him say that he made comments about not knowing what he would do without football.  In February 2011, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide at the age of 50.  He also suffered from depression that is believed to have stemmed from brain injuries resulting from his playing days.  These two athletes, as well as many others, have succumbed to their mental illnesses.  It’s time that pro athletes—and everyone who suffers from mental illness—get the help they need and deserve.  How can we better help them do so?