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Mental Illness In Sports

Mental Illness In Sports

April 26, 2019

Author: Ken Wolf

 Every ‘March Madness’ is chock-full of great games and epic stories. There were plenty of both this year, but one had a layer of the human condition rarely talked about in the sporting world. When a Guy who’s been vocal about his battle with anxiety hits three free throws (shortly after making a clutch trey) to put his team in the finals a year after they were ousted in the greatest tournament upset in college basketball history, that is something special. Going from death threats over a lost game to national championship and MVP is a great story. Sharing your mental illness in hopes to help a society that doesn’t talk near enough about these things, that is the stuff of heroes.

“I just didn’t want to be your hero and then all of a sudden, you know, your hero has got flaws.”

-Terry Bradshaw

The tough as nails Steelers quarterback from a generation that spoke even less about the issue said this regarding his struggle with clinical depression. The Blonde Bomber’s story helped me when I was coming to grips with my own debilitating depression.

“Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal. I am extremely thankful that I didn’t take my own life.”

-Michael Phelps

How could the most successful Olympian of all time consider killing himself?  Severe depression and anxiety (the two often go together). Part of the stigma about mental illness in general and specifically these two prevalent conditions, is that being human means feeling depressed and anxious sometimes. However, there is a tremendous difference between this uncomfortable yet normal part of life and the medical sicknesses that are major depression and anxiety disorders.      

Jerry West, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Love, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Dorothy Hamill, Amanda Beard, Chamique Holdsclaw, Abby Wambach, and a number of others. They’ve all been vocal about their  struggles. Age, race, and gender are irrelevant when it comes to illness, whether physical or mental. Though with men there is often another layer of expected ‘toughness’ and self-help. Another layer on top of the expectations of just being a strong human and the additional layer of being a strong athlete and maintaining a certain brand.

Grossly oversimplified, I look at it like this: we all, every single one of us, deal personally with mental health. But we don’t all deal with mental illness. The science behind the difference is sketchy at best. And that doesn’t help with the stigma. You can read yourself in circles about the subject, which is what I’ve done over seven years while trying to write a memoir about it. Genetics, environment, and lifestyle can all play a part. A busted knee is a pretty concrete measurable thing. A busted brain is not. The best way to understand is to go through it yourself or witness a loved one battle. I hope you experience neither.  Odds are you will.  

The good news? There is light at the end of the long dark tunnel. Greatness to be had if you make it out of the abyss, a wiser and battle-tested being. And there is help available. Some inflicted people need medication. All inflicted people need to talk about it. Via personal therapy hopefully, but societal therapy absolutely. And that it what Kyle from Virginia has done. And a number of others. Athletes and not. Famous and not. The common thread amongst folks who do speak out is the level of importance they see in it. They will tell you it’s the most important thing they’ll ever do. Of much greater importance than any championship or medal. Greater than fame and fortune. Are athletes heroes? These are. You can be a hero, too. Via telling your own story or just having empathy. Peace. 


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