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Changing the Narrative Around Mental Health in Athletics

Marshall McElhinney

"Mental health isn't just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn't have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing." -Kevin Love

Maybe you've heard of a few of these names….Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Tyson Fury, Michael Phelps, Zack Grienke, Kevin Love, and Brandon Marshall. All of these individuals have something in common besides being elite athletes in their respective areas of athletics…and that is opening up publicly about their struggles with mental health.

In a day and age where the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues is decreasing for the average individual, there appears to be a double standard for athletics. An assumption around professional and college athletes is that only emotionally stable and mentally strong individuals participate and compete in the highest level of sports (Markser, 2011). But the narrative of weakness is everywhere you look in the sporting world and the culture that surrounds it. Perk up and listen while tailgating on a college football Saturday, check twitter on NFL Sunday, sit in a bar during the World Series, or listen to any sports talk radio call-in show on your drive to work you and will hear a consistent narrative being discussed around "mental" weaknesses. I can't even count how many times participating in each scenario I have heard someone say, "that guy is a nutcase…he can't handle the pressure…they aren't mentally strong enough to be a winner."

The truth of the matter is that mental disorders are just as prevalent in professional sports as they are in the general population (Markser, 2011). In fact, depression is the most common mental disorder that is diagnosed in athletics and is as common in professional sports as it is outside of it (Burton, 2000). Keep in mind that depression consists of persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life (APA). The narrative or idea that depression and other mental illness will derail these athletes from succeeding needs to become a thing of the past. All the athletes listed above are award-winning top of their sport recognized individuals, and all of them have dealt with the internal struggle and stigma of mental illness.

"Depression is my toughest opponent and I'll fight it for the rest of my life." -Tyson Fury

The cultural narrative around mental health and the decreasing stigma of mental illness is a much-needed social development. The athletic world and its fandoms need less "tough it out," "white knuckling" and "you'll be ok" and more recognition of its champions that show mental health is something that people from all walks of life experience and can cope with when they reach out for help.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Burton, R. (2000). Mental illness in athletes. In: Begel D, Burton RW (eds) Sport psychiatry. North and Company, Inc., New York, 61-81.

Markser, V. (2011). Sports psychiatry and psychotherapy: Mental strains and disorders in professional sports; Challenge and answer to societal changes. European Archives of Psychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience, 261(2), 182-185.

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