We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, and it’s crying out for more attention.
Lives are being lost to suicide. Depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness negatively affect entire families, not just the individual suffering. Work productivity is impacted to a significant degree due to mental health issues.
And yet, there’s still a public stigma associated with mental illness.
Approximately 46 million people are living with mental illness in the United States. On college campuses, 33 per cent of all students suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions to varying degrees.
Among American youth, 9.7 per cent have severe depression (up from 9.2 per cent in last year’s study). The percentage of adults in the U.S. experiencing serious thoughts of suicide increased by 460,000 from last year.
One area, in particular, that needs more attention when it comes to mental health is sports. Among professional athletes, up to 35 per cent suffer from a mental health issue, which may manifest as depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or burnout. Rarely do they seek help. Of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10 per cent seek help (versus 30 per cent of college students as a whole who seek help).
I’ve shared these statistics to set the stage for an incredible sports story. Drew Robinson, a veteran Major League Baseball player who lost his right eye in a suicide attempt last year, not only survived that attempt but is on the precipice of returning to the Major Leagues. It was recently announced that Robinson made the opening day roster for the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A team in Sacramento.
Before his suicide attempt, Robinson was like a lot of athletes. He thought that, because he was an athlete, he had to be tough – both physically and mentally – and not show any weakness. Sharing any doubts or fears with another human was out of the question in his mind. He was a master at keeping things to himself. To his friends and family, he was the fun, wise-cracking, good-natured life of the party.
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They were shocked when they found out that on April 16, 2020, Robinson tried to kill himself by shooting a bullet into his right temple. Somehow, he didn’t die. While bleeding and with his right eye shut, he groggily looked around and thought, “What happened? Why am I still here?” He spent the next 20 hours trying to decide whether to attempt to kill himself again or dial 911 for help. After a spark of inspiration, he chose to live and dialled for help.
When talking to his brother Chad on the phone while in the hospital after the suicide attempt, Drew kept repeating, “I’m meant to be alive, Chad. I’m meant to be alive. I’m meant to be alive.”
Robinson endured four surgeries to repair the damage the bullet caused, including one to remove what was left of his right eye. He was determined that his ‘after’ would be better than his ‘before.’ He suddenly felt driven by love, not self-hate. His new purpose was to help people avoid the pit of despair he had fallen into.
Drew’s primary message is if you’re hurting, talk to someone. Anyone. It doesn’t have to be a family member, a friend or even a therapist. But find someone you can be open with. He discovered people want to help and are actually drawn to vulnerability, not repelled by it.
“So many people in this world are willing to help anyone going through these things,” says Robinson. “You’re never alone.”
One day, during his recovery, Robinson decided he wanted to play baseball again. He started working out like a fiend: weights, cardio, batting practice.
The Giants offered him a minor league spring training spot. No guarantees. No promises. After a good camp, he was told that he’d made Sacramento’s roster.
Robinson’s not out of the woods yet. He still has some down days. But he’s discovered that being vulnerable and talking to people about it will prevent him from going to a dark place. He regularly sees a therapist. He’s on an antidepressant, meditates and writes in a journal daily. And he’s sharing his story as widely as he can.
“I’m stronger than what I thought I was,” says Robinson. And he wants people to know that they too can be stronger than they thought if they just take the first step and reach out for help.
It’s a message that needs to be shared over and over, especially in the sports world, where stigma is cited as the main reason athletes with mental health issues don’t seek the help they need.
That’s a stigma that needs to be completely erased.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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