Indianapolis Colts lead the way in NFL’s effort to kick the stigma around mental health issues

Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts have gone to great lengths to lead the NFL’s effort to combat the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The primary goals of Kicking the Stigma are detailed on the campaign’s landing page, where individuals and businesses can also donate to the cause.

Of course, it is impossible to bring about change without first raising awareness. For example, Kicking the Stigma states, “One in five adults in the United States — including one in four Hoosiers — has some form of mental health disorder. These are our friends and neighbors who struggle every day with depression and anxiety. Addiction and other illnesses are decimating the quality of life for them and their loved ones.”

What makes mental health issues so easy to overlook is that the existence of these issues is not easily seen and rarely discussed. Broader public attitudes about discussing mental health issues appear in almost any TV show or movie. Any mention of seeking help for mental health issues, and any acknowledgment that someone might need to talk about these issues through a “downgrade” visit, is often represented as very embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Oddly enough, suffering from a physical illness does not create the same kind of problem. Most people feel comfortable seeing in public places visibly affected by a cold or illness. Most feel comfortable going about their day if they are physically injured, even if the injury requires the use of crutches, a splint, or walking shoes.

In my experience, it is not uncommon for these people to be so eager to share what happened that caused their injury.

Why is mental health so different? Do you have to be?

Doctors and surgeons can treat physical ailments through physical procedures, including surgery, rest, and rehabilitation. Diagnosing physical diseases is often simple. X-rays, MRIs, or other diagnostic tests can allow medical professionals to properly see injuries and diagnose their severity to develop an effective treatment plan.

The truth is that being open about mental health issues is very important. Mental health professionals often rely heavily on discussing challenges and obstacles that create problems that will not show up in screening. How can mental health problems be treated, through therapy or medication, if a diagnosis never occurs?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Greater Indianapolis discusses these issues and notes that failure to open up about mental health often leads to self-treatment.

As it should not be surprising, self-treatment often exacerbates existing challenges by causing addiction and other unintended side effects. Several studies show that people with mental illness often use illegal drugs as a way to deal with and outline the devastating effects of these decisions.

When self-treatment efforts fail, things can turn for the worse. The Break Stigma campaign reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 34 years. As you might expect, suicide survivors—family members or loved ones left behind after someone commits suicide—are at high risk of suffering from their own mental health problems.

This pattern of behavior and the impact it has on society is incredibly alarming. The cycle to break is: failure to get help for mental illness or to get treatment for those whose mental health needs attention, which leads to self-medication, substance abuse, and sometimes suicide, which leads to persistent mental health problems for loved ones who are stuck in the aftermath .

The way to break the cycle is to open up about mental health issues and seek professional diagnosis and treatment.

Anyone reading this story who feels they need immediate help to get their mental health issues under control, please call 2-1-1.

The stigma should go. It’s okay not to be okay. It is very important for people to talk about these issues and understand that with more people participating, fewer people with mental health issues will feel isolated.

A Look at Professional Athletes (and Other Generic Figures)

The world of professional sports is often viewed from an unrealistic perspective. The owners, general managers, coaches and players are all held to extremely high standards. Fans are consumers and the cities where professional franchisees reside use state and city money, cough taxpayer money cough, to build the stadiums in which the games are held.

In this way, fans claim ownership of the entire production. Athletes are entertainers, and their material gifts and high salaries make them responsible for providing a product that is worth the price of admission. This is what leads to the ‘shut up and dribble’ mentality or the rush to judge mistakes off the field.

Athletes are not the only ones to take upon themselves the demands of mass public scrutiny. Celebrities in just about any field, politicians, and now seemingly anyone establishing a serious following on social media can all find themselves the target of mass criticism.

Likewise, military service personnel are rarely known by the masses at the individual level, but their existence and the results of their activities are largely covered in the media, and overall opinions about these activities often lead to scrutiny directed at individuals who may not have played a role. The role in everything that caught the attention of the audience in the first place.

Members of each of these public domains are treated as more than just an individual. The expectations placed upon them are ruthlessly high.

Not surprisingly, the environment in which professional athletes operate creates an opportunity for severe mental health challenges. The demands and pressure that comes from seemingly every angle, financial risk, family expectations, and the competitive drive needed to outsmart opponents or simply secure a place on the NFL roster are enormously taxing on mind and emotion. It’s hard to maintain that level of mental and emotional focus over an entire season and off season, and even harder to do so at an elite level for years.

Remember that most professional athletes are recent college graduates. Even “old” NFL football players rarely extend into their late thirties. Perhaps fans need to do a better job of keeping the human realities of professional athletes, artists, and other public figures in perspective.

With fame will always come more pressure and opportunity for more scrutiny. The megaphone will invite feedback and feedback from a larger audience. But at the end of the day, professional athletes, coaches, general managers, and owners (plus other public figures and celebrities) all drive home, have relationships with friends and family members (which come with good and bad) and drive to work in the morning. They have good days and bad days, they make good and bad decisions, and they suffer wins and losses that don’t show up on any scoreboard.

This is what makes the efforts of the Indianapolis Colts to lead the NFL indictment to de-stigma around mental health problems and disorders so powerful. The loudspeaker is big and the people behind these efforts are just the people. If they are willing to open up about their own challenges, even in the face of backlash and public scrutiny, shouldn’t the rest of us be willing to do the same?

Please visit the “Stigma” campaign landing page to donate to a critical effort.

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