Many sports teams and professional athletes are shining a spotlight on mental health and working to help end the stigma. One team that is setting a good example is the Indianapolis Colts. They have created a campaign called “Kicking the Stigma.” Leading the campaign is linebacker Darius Leonard who has opened up about his struggles with mental health. He shared what his childhood was like being one of nine kids with two older brothers in prison. For 17 years, he shared a twin bed with his brother, Keivonte, who would always sleep on his right side while Leonard would sleep on his left side. They were best friends and had big dreams of being professional football players. One night, Keivonte was in a fight and got knocked out. He was taken to the hospital for a head injury and the doctors and nurses said he would be fine. Two days later, Leonard received a call that his brother was gone.
After this, Leonard’s mental health spiraled. Leonard said, “I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was having such bad chest pains that I literally thought I was having heart attacks. My anxiety, it wasn’t just a mental pain, man. It was physical. Excruciating” (The Players Tribune, 2020). It took a long time for Leonard to come out of the darkness that had consumed him. He didn’t go to his dream college because he wanted to go to a college close to his family. He didn’t play football freshman year and was barely passing his classes. With help, he was able to climb out of the dark hole and became the pro football player he and his brother always dreamed of being. Despite his success, Leonard still struggles with his mental health and is now using his platform to fight the mental health stigma and the stereotype that comes with being a man and an athlete. Leonard says, “I got everything we dreamed about and schemed about. But the truth is that I’m still in pain. The truth is that I still can’t sleep on my left side. The truth is that I still have to work through my anxiety. All that stuff, it doesn’t make me weak. It makes me so strong” (ibid).
In May of 2020, ESPN celebrated Mental Health Awareness Month by highlighting athletes’ and coaches’ mental health stories. “The hope is that these stories help raise awareness, provide information and improve understanding about mental health” (ESPN, 2020). The stories that were shared include struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, and other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. Many more athletes have been sharing their stories over the years and Sparlin Mental Health has compiled stories from seven professional athletes including Olympic winners Michael Phelps, Aly Raisman and Abby Wambach.