In 2011, NFL player Brandon Marshall held a press conference to talk about his diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. It was one of the rare moments where an athlete addressed their mental illness directly. “I actually think that I might be a better football player…I never thought that 75% of the game is mental,” the then Miami Dolphins athlete shared.
While the subject of mental illness is becoming increasingly less taboo, the sports arena is one that struggles to find whole-hearted solidarity. Athletes, especially pro-athletes, are under an inordinate amount of mental stress. The competitiveness in achieving pro-status, as well as the constant stress of public evaluation on an athlete’s performance, gives strong motive to compensate stress through unhealthy means. Many star athletes like Marshall have frequently made headlines for alcoholism and violence. Others have shown the prevalence of drug abuse and eating disorders. Overall, it has become natural to associate sports stars with wild, unwholesome living. The toxic combination of stress and substance abuse often triggers those genetic susceptible to mental disorders.
Entertainers face a similar susceptibility in their easy access to drugs and alcohol, and their high levels of stress from constant media pressure. Many big name stars such as Emma Thompson, Mel Gibson, and Demi Lovato have all openly admitted to struggling with mental illnesses. But while entertainers often find public sympathy regarding their mental illnesses, athletes often have an altogether different set of obstacles preventing such openness.
In the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Olympic Korean figure skater, Kim Yuna returned to the rink in hopes of winning another gold medal with a Korean choreographer this time. The young athlete, nicknamed Queen Yuna of Korea, skated not only the pressure of the Olympics, but also with Korea’s long-standing political rivalry with Japan. She lost. Individual schools, states and countries are often obsessive about the reputation of their sports teams and athletes as a point of personal pride. Rivalries thrive from the competitive nature of sports, and they are often associated with personal identity at the local and global level. All athletes bear the burden of representing their team as well as themselves as strong and invulnerable to competition. In many cases, athletes will suppress addressing their mental health to maintain this façade.
The larger the public investment, the more sport sponsors and managements are inclined to cover evidence of mental illnesses within the team. Pro-basketball player, Luther Wright, explains how disclosing one’s mental illness isn’t a risk athletes are willing to take given their investment to the sport. The retired basketball player for the Utah Jazz who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder shared:
“You can’t get sick. At the college level, that’s your proving ground. There’s no room for any type of diagnosis for mental health issues because that would put up a red flag and maybe block you from going to the next level. I don’t think they would even recruit you if they knew you had some illness or some mental health issues that you were mentally incapable of performing at the highest level.”
Institutional support is vital in making athletes feel comfortable voicing their struggles with mental illness. In recent years, many organizations such as ESPN and NCAA have provided resources stressing the importance of mental health support. Colleges also often have some system of addressing mental health in sports. At Wheaton College, athletes have access to Student Care Network. Student Care Network, according to Athletics Director, Julie Davis, “is a place where communication about mental health occurs and a place to make sure we are partnering well with campus and also helping to direct student-athletes to the right places on campus to receive care.” This system however still requires the athlete to take initiative and seek help from their coach.
While institutional support is irreplaceable, athletes remain the ideal advocate for mental health because of their value as symbols of strength in society. Since his press conference in 2011, Marshall has sought treatment his mental illness, and in 2012 he accepted a new position with the Chicago Bulls. As a practicing pro-athlete, Brandon Marshall is passionate about using his platform to contradict traditional notions of weakness associated with mental illness. He has co-founded Project 375, an organization dedicated to educating people on mental health, with his wife. In the realm of sports and beyond, we need more athletes like Brandon Marshall to use their emblem of strength and effectiveness to overcome the stigma of mental illness.