The National Football League (NFL) is known for its intense competition and physicality, but behind the scenes, many professional football players struggle with mental health. With nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults dealing with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions, it’s not surprising that household names in the NFL have also faced their own psychological issues.
The ultra-masculine culture of pro football has long perpetuated negative attitudes toward mental health problems, making it difficult for players to seek support and openly discuss their struggles. In recent years, more NFL players have stepped forward to share their experiences with mental illness.
NFL Players Inspiring Change And Advocating For Treatment
These football stars have broken the silence surrounding mental health in the NFL, inspiring change and encouraging help-seeking behaviors among players and fans alike.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has faced significant emotional distress, including the death of his mother from cancer, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the suicide of his brother. Prescott revealed his struggles with anxiety and depression, emphasizing the importance of seeking support from loved ones. He launched the “Ask 4 Help” campaign during National Suicide Prevention Month in 2021, aiming to prioritize mental health and combat the epidemic of suicide.
Former Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown opened up about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts in a now-deleted Instagram video. Brown admitted that he had previously brushed off his feelings, a common response among men facing mental health issues. He emphasized the need for men to speak out and seek help, encouraging others to prioritize their well-being.
Carl Nassib, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made history in 2021 as the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib’s public announcement brought relief and authenticity to his life, enabling him to be open about his sexual orientation. He used his platform to raise awareness and donated generously to The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention and mental health support for LGBTQ+ youth.
Former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen announced his diagnosis of bipolar disorder on Instagram in 2021. Griffen’s mental health struggles became evident after an incident that led to a call to 911.
He acknowledged the need to embrace his condition and became an advocate for mental health. With the support of his family, Griffen overcame substance abuse and now aims to inspire others to seek help and maintain hope.
Detroit Lions wide receiver D.J. Chark shared his lifelong battle with depression and anxiety in a video for the NFL’s Mental Health and Wellness Series. Chark’s struggles began in childhood, and it wasn’t until college that he received a formal diagnosis. He continues to seek therapy and takes prescribed medication. Chark emphasizes that it’s important to reach out and ask for help, reminding others that they are not alone in their struggles.
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst experienced debilitating anxiety and depression during his baseball career. After attempting suicide, he found support from his family and redirected his focus to football. Hurst’s dream of playing in the NFL came true, and he now uses his platform to advocate for mental health. Through the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation, he supports the well-being and education of those in need.
The Impact of Traumatic Events In The NFL
Traumatic events, such as Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on the field during a 2023 Bills-Bengals game, can have a profound impact on players’ mental health. Witnessing a teammate’s life-threatening situation can trigger anxiety and trauma among players. It is essential to provide immediate support in such cases to help players process their emotions and navigate the psychological effects of the event.
The Role and Potential Consequences of Vicarious Trauma
Vicarious trauma, experienced by those who witness or learn about a traumatic event, can affect players who were present during incidents like Damar Hamlin’s collapse. Reactions range from fear and helplessness to nightmares and flashbacks. Some athletes may try to avoid situations or reminders that trigger their traumatic memories.
The emotional toll of witnessing traumatic events can have long-lasting consequences for players. Some may choose to retire early due to the psychological impact, while others may struggle with fear and hesitancy on the field, leading to an increased risk of injuries. The high-pressure and short-term nature of NFL contracts exacerbates the players’ concerns about their mental health and career longevity.
The NFL’s Efforts in Mental Health Support
In 2019, the NFL implemented a program to address the mental health needs of its employees. This initiative was a result of the collective bargaining agreement and the push from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The agreement mandates that each team have a licensed behavioral health clinician on staff. However, the implementation of this directive varies from team to team.
Some franchises have full-time sports psychologists, while others employ clinicians on a part-time basis. A few teams contract with outside providers, making mental health services available to players. However, one critical flaw in the current approach is that clinicians are not required to have a background in sports psychology. This specialization is crucial in understanding the unique mental health challenges in professional athletes.
Overcoming Stigma And Building a Supportive Culture
Despite the progress made, the NFL still faces challenges in addressing mental health due to the stigma associated with discussing emotions and seeking help. Players are often seen as strong and invulnerable, and showing vulnerability is often considered a weakness. This mindset poses a significant barrier to players seeking the support they need.
The NFL Players Association has been proactive in addressing this issue and encouraging players to prioritize their mental well-being. Union president JC Tretter, an NFL veteran, emphasizes the importance of caring for one’s mental health and utilizing available resources. Ultimately, the league needs to continue working towards creating a culture where seeking mental health support is seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness.