Local sports stars are bringing mental health issues to the forefront of conversations

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Detroit — Talking about mental health can be difficult.

Former local sports stars Calvin Johnson, Darren McCarty, Braylon Edwards and Andre Rison — among a host of Detroit athletes at The Eastern in Detroit on Thursday night — don’t want that to happen.

Dozens of local athletes and health experts gathered for the first “Walk & Talk of Detroit”, a charity event organized by Hall of Fame Health, Fund Recovery and Caring Ways to benefit mental health and substance abuse, as well as behavioral health treatment.

Hall of Fame Health, an affiliate of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, aims to provide behavioral health resources to former football players. Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021 after a nine-season career with the Lions (2007-2015) and has spoken frequently about mental and behavioral health.

“You have a lot of exposure to professional athletes, so it’s really inherent in us to use that platform to raise awareness and educate where we can,” Johnson said.

“The goal is to understand the science of neuroplasticity, and it’s really the science based on the brain’s ability to change. If you can imagine being in the weight room lifting weights, your brain can do the same thing. You have the same kind of gains, mentally.

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“Being able to create solutions is why I’m here.”

Money raised from the event benefited Detroit recovery centers, including event sponsor Skywood Recovery and the Hall of Fame Recovery Fund.

Johnson said that while the stigma surrounding the conversation about mental health has improved over the years, there’s still a long way to go.

“People fear retaliation in employment, people might not understand what they have with themselves, Johnson said. “It’s really just education for both business owners and business people who employ (people), and really for everyone.

“Family members – understanding the different kinds of mental challenges people face. It’s everywhere. It’s in everyone’s family.”

(L to R) Calvin Johnson, Darren McCarty, Letha Atwater, Braylon Edwards, Andre Rison and Rebekah Sharpe speak during roundtable two at the Detroit Walk & Talk charity event in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, May 12 2022.

Johnson spoke at a panel alongside McCarty, Rison, Edwards and Letha Atwater, wife of former Denver Bronco Steve Atwater.

Edwards has worked closely with Sean Jordan and The Sports Marketing Agency to bring conversations like these to local high schools since 2018.

Part of eliminating stigma, Edwards said, is recognizing when someone needs help and lending a helping hand. He remembers having an unnamed teammate who the team joked was “a little crazy”, only to have the teammate get arrested shortly after retiring from the league.

“I was able to look back…and say, ‘He was in pain. He was screaming for help. But I didn’t know how to help him at 24, at 22, at 23, 27,” Edwards said. “To be able to know this conversation now, to be able to have this ability to help… it’s like, ‘I have to do more and more.

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“As you start doing that, when you start helping children, you also notice that individuals – whether it’s substance abuse protocol or mental health – respond to athletes.They respond to artists.

“So I said, you know what? I’m in step.

Some current Lions are getting ahead of the curve in recognizing the mental health issues facing athletes. Newly acquired wide receiver DJ Chark and defensive lineman Jashon Cornell were also in attendance.

In 2021, Cornell was suspended for three games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Cornell was convicted of a misdemeanor for impaired driving in Minnesota.

“What people don’t understand is that as an athlete, we’re all put on that pedestal,” Cornell said at the event Thursday. “When you have all these cameras and everything around you, you try to be yourself, but at the same time there’s a lot going on and people don’t understand.

“Sometimes you have family issues or issues with work or issues at home, and then the mental health aspect of it…you are able to control it sometimes, and sometimes you are not. .”

Former Lions quarterback Eric Hipple spoke on the previous panel at the event. Hipple abused drugs and alcohol and was convicted of drunk driving after his son died in 2000 by suicide. Hipple said men and athletes in general struggle to deal with mental health issues for fear of appearing weak.

(L to R) Ryan Cain, Chad Koller, Dr. Meeta Singh, Eric Hipple and Sara Tigay speaking during the first installment of the Detroit Walk & Talk charity event in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, May 12, 2022.

“I think, first of all, men in general…we’re people who fix things. If something’s broken, it’s ‘Oh, I’ll fix it’ and we don’t know how to talk about it,” Hipple said.

McCarty, who was open to multiple bouts of alcohol abuse during and after his 15-year NHL career, said making people feel like they won’t be judged is the biggest step towards beginning of a positive change.

“I think once people are convinced they won’t be judged, the numbers will become more real,” McCarty said.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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