When people are asked to define a professional athlete, some of the first words that come to mind are large, muscular, masculine and tough. Especially for elite athletes, who are sometimes described as not being human.
It is meant in a positive light, saying the athlete does things that few humans can do. But sports fans often forget these athletes are human beings who make mistakes and experience their own struggles.
Talking about their struggles with mental-health issues can be extraordinarily difficult for anyone. The stigmas attached to mental health issues and how it can change how people perceive you are tremendous obstacles to opening up about it.
It can be even more difficult for professional athletes, seen by the general public as masculine figures who are paid millions of dollars to play a game.
When the athlete makes a mistake, whether it’s making a costly error that loses the game or failing a drug test, fans and the media hound him or her for messing up and not being perfect.
The understanding that athletes are humans who go through struggles, both physically, emotionally and mentally, is often lost.
A great example might be New York Jets’ wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who dealt with a tainted past, which included domestic abuse and driving under the influence.
After years of judgment from the public, Marshall revealed that shortly after his arrest for domestic violence, he sought help and was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder, according to USA Today.
It was at this point that Marshall went beyond being a football player. He became an advocate for mental-health awareness. He added a powerful voice to the matter as a player who was at the top of his game in one of the most masculine, physical sports.
In a sport in which athletes dealing with fractured bones and severe sprains are given bags of prescription pain killers so they can remain on the field, the idea of athletes opening themselves up publicly and revealing their emotional pain seems far away.
But Marshall is taking the first big step in bringing more awareness to the mental-health issues athletes go through.
There have been some signs of progress, such as when Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant was given a year-long suspension after failing his fourth drug test in his career, testing positive for marijuana. Bryant received strong support on social media when he revealed he was dealing with depression.
But there are still many who, after they see athletes admitting to having a mental illness, question their masculinity and toughness for not being able to put up with things.
It takes a tremendous amount of strength to be open to talking about one’s experience with mental-health issues and being able to see past the initial fear of how people will perceive you and treat you.
We must recognize professional athletes as people who go through different emotions and struggles under the pressure of a national spotlight and recognize there are many of them who are likely struggling with mental-health issues, but can’t speak out because it could impact their careers or perception.
The stigmatization around mental health needs to be removed.
Struggling with mental health issues doesn’t make a professional athlete less masculine, and it doesn’t make anyone less of a person.