Monday, August 8, 2011

George James: Athletes and Mental Illness

black athletes, mental health, african americans, black news

by George James, Your Black World 

We expect a lot from athletes, from little leagues to professionals. We expect athletes to perform at high levels, entertaining us with their physical ability and amazing us with their talent. Unfortunately, we don’t expect athletes to be just like us, human. We put athletes on a pedestal making them celebrities and above the normal rules of life. This process starts at an early age. It could be at a pee wee football or soccer game. Our projections, that athletes are special, unique and gifted starts when they are young and continues as they develop their abilities and get older.

Some athletes have had people scouting them from high school and for others the process started in junior high or earlier. As their fans, we want to see and experience their greatness and dismiss their physical and emotional limitations and pain. As an athlete, we strive for the next level of accomplishment, to be the best in the sport or to win the championship, sometimes at the risk of our physical and emotional health.

The reality is that athletes are people too. This means that athletes can struggle with the same things many people might struggle with throughout their lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 10 people will experience depression within a given year, with higher numbers reported for women compared to men. With these numbers, it is safe to say that you or a teammate could be depressed at some point during the year. Just as it would be considered normal if you, a co-worker or family member became depressed, it would also be the same for someone from your favorite sport or team became depressed.

Depression is one form of mental illness that you, I or an athlete could experience during our lifetime. There are many other forms of mental illness including Mood Disorders (such as Depression and Bipolar Disorder), Anxiety Disorders (such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and General Anxiety Disorder), Substance Related Disorders (such as Substance Abuse and Substance Dependence), Personality Disorders (such as Borderline Personality Disorder) and many more. However, mental illness is a subject that most people shy away from discussing, especially athletes. Many view mental illness as a personal weakness, but it is not a sign of weakness or a personal flaw, it is a health issue that needs attention.

Tips for Athletes with Mental Illness

1) You are not alone – Often times, the way you feel (such as sad, racing thoughts, hopeless, or obsessions) and the things you do to block feelings of emotional pain (reckless behavior, alcohol, pills or violent behavior) can make you feel like you are by yourself. The truth is you are not alone. In fact, some of your teammates or other athletes in your sport could be dealing with the same mental illness as you. Since you are not alone, you do not have to work through this alone.

2) Get the help you need – Admitting that you need help is a major step in the healing process. Even though you are able to play through the pain, the longer you wait to get the help necessary, the more your mental illness will impact your life. The longer you wait the more you will try to overcompensate and numb the emotional pain. You go to your trainer or even the team doctor when you feel physical pain. This shows that you are able to get help when you feel physical pain. Getting help for emotional pain works the same way. Therefore, whenever you feel emotional pain, you should go to see a therapist, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

3) Your performance will improve – As an athlete, you are concerned about your performance, improving your skills and remaining competitive. Having an untreated mental illness can impact your performance on the field/court as well as off. An untreated mental illness can keep you from playing or increase your chances of getting fined or suspended when you are not playing. Getting your mental illness treated appropriately can improve your performance on and off the field/court.

Athletes with Mental Illness*

Brandon Marshall, wide receiver in the NFL, was recently diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Terry Bradshaw, sports announcer and former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has experienced anxiety attacks and depression.

Shelley Beattie, former bodybuilder, dealt with bipolar disorder during her life.

Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins running back and former Heisman trophy winner, was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder after having trouble leaving his own house.

John Daly, professional golfer, has struggled with alcoholism, gambling and bipolar disorder.

Mike Tyson, professional boxer, before his public struggles suffered from depression.

Nikki Teasley, professional Women’s Basketball star and former MVP, admitted to living with depression.

Monica Seles, former World No. 1 professional tennis player, reportedly has depression.

Darryl Strawberry, former baseball player for the New York Mets and the New York Yankees, reportedly has bipolar disorder.

Greg Louganis, a Greek American diver who won back-to-back Olympic titles, reportedly has depression.

As you can see, many athletes from various sports have experienced mental illness. Taking care of yourself, including your emotional health, is important for your overall health and wellness and can improve your performance in your sport. Whether you are in high school, college or a professional athlete it is important for you to take care of your entire body, including your emotional body. True strength is being able to get the help you need, even when it feels like the complete opposite of what you are used to doing.

*Source for Athletes with Mental Illness: Prisoners of Depression, L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, September 2003.

George James is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and CEO of George Talks, LLC. For more on this and other topics, please visit,

Twitter: @GeorgeTalksLLC Email:

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