Tyler Ulis received a rookie backpack during Suns training camp. (Photo by: Angela Denogean/Cronkite News)
Athletes move to forefront of mental health discussion
On January 16, Tyler Hilinski, a quarterback at Washington State, committed suicide. A day later, family and friends remembered the four-year anniversary of the day Madison Holleran, a member of the track and field team at the University of Pennsylvania, took her life by jumping off a parking garage. In February, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan tweeted in the middle of the night, “This depression get the best of me,” spurring important discussion about a difficult issue.
During this first week of Mental Health Awareness Month, the stories of athletes’ struggles, too, are being told.
“I feel like (fans) think that we are superheroes to everybody,” Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis said. “We go through things in life, even though you guys see us on TV playing a game we love and having fun. We still go through our ups and down as well.”
Nearly 24 percent of 465 athletes at a NCAA Division I private university reported a “clinically relevant” level of depression, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Drexel and Kean universities. Female athletes had a higher prevalence rate: 28 percent vs. 18 percent.
In his recent revelation to The Players’ Tribune about suffering panic attacks, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love wrote that “I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak.”
Athletes are looked at by many to be superhuman. For sports fans, many special moments were created by their athletic idols.
LeBron James bringing home a championship to Cleveland. Kirk Gibson hitting a walk-off home run in the World Series.
What is lost among the stories of legends though are the struggles of the man.
In Arizona, it is no different.
Coming from Kentucky, one of the elite college basketball programs in the country, Ulis knew early on he would be looked at as Superman by some fans, even if he was just like everyone else.
With such high expectations from fans, it can be hard for athlete to share. In his book “A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke,” author Ronald Reng said the German soccer standout who committed suicide in 2009 “summoned up a huge amount of strength to keep his depression secret. He locked himself away in his illness.”
Some athletes never have to face the struggles of depression or anxiety. But others may not even be aware that what they are suffering is caused by mental stress.
The Suns’ Jared Dudley, an NBA veteran of 11 years, said he has been fortunate to not have faced mental health issues but believes many players struggle with panic attacks or other issues related to depression and anxiety but don’t pursue treatment because they are unaware of the problem.
“I think they don’t know the feeling,” Dudley said. “I don’t think they know what it is. They’ve never had it before. As a kid, everything is happy go-go. You are just playing basketball. There is really no pressure. They aren’t hiding it. They just don’t know what it is and haven’t diagnosed it.”
Even if they do know what the problem is, the answer doesn’t always come easily. Although most professional teams offer help to their players, such as sports psychologists, they can’t force players to take advantage of the help. A stigma about asking for help exists around locker rooms, players say.
One NFL player, who did not wish to be named, said he has struggled with depression since he was in junior high school and that many of his teammates grew up like him. He made it a point to say that while the league offers help, it needs to do more.
It is hard to be a man and talk about mental health, “especially in the black community,” he said. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), men are 3.53 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
For some pros, like Dragan Bender of the Phoenix Suns, the added pressure and mental stress of being a professional athlete is simply part of the job.
“You have to be a professional and deal with that stuff,” Bender said.
The pressure is more challenging for some. Sports is a volatile industry that is filled with uncertainty and pressure to perform. These conditions are catalysts towards adding stress to someone’s life and affecting them in ways they have not experienced before, experts say.
Jake Lamb, the third baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said he has found a way of dealing with pressures before they ever affect him.
“Everyone has their issues, whether its mental health or other things,” he said. “Talking to a friend or family members always helps me.”
Support systems are key. For Dudley, it’s his family and relationship with God. For the NFL player, it’s his sons, some friends and his pastor. Without these support systems, players’ lives could very well take a different path.
Challenges can be harder for those still inching toward adulthood. In addition to Hilinski and Holleran, in March of 2013 Matt Jungemann, a high school lacrosse player in Utah, added his name to the list of the estimated 44,965 Americans who die each year by suicide (AFSP).
Athletes such as Love and DeRozan that are willing to come forward are starting important conversations.
According to the AFSP, suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States but second highest for those between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Athletes can lead the charge to help not only each other but everyone who is affected by mental health issues.