Since his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Brian Dawkins has worked hard to break the stigma surrounding mental health.
The NFL and many players are also doing their part to fix the problem.
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Dawkins, a nine-time Pro Bowl sure and four-time All-Pro during 16 seasons with the Eagles and Broncos, has been on a mission to spread the word about what he calls brain wellness since revealing he He had been suffering from depression for several years. and had suicidal thoughts early in his playing career.
“There’s so much negative connotation still attached to mental health,” Dawkins recently said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “In fact, when I talk about mental health, the thing that usually comes to everyone’s mind and that has come to mind for me is self-harm, depression, anxiety. No , they are mental illnesses. We all have mental health. So separate the two but that’s not what society has done. Society says every time you mention mental health is a negative thing. And , sanity is actually a positive thing. I have it, if you’re alive you have it too. If you’re thinking, if you’re conscious, you have sanity and that’s a good thing. You should celebrate that, and when you look at things from a different perspective, that can help.
Dawkins says maintaining brain wellness requires daily mental, spiritual, and physical work. He details how he trains his mind in his book: “Blessed by the Best: My Journey to Canton and Beyond”.
“We all need someone to talk to,” he said. “That’s what I understand now that it’s OK to have people in your life that you have to nominate and that you can call or text at any time, and I know that they will pray with me, then they’re not going to judge me.”
The NFL and the Players Union are committed to helping build a positive culture around mental health. The league and NFLPA agreed in May 2019 to increase mental health resources available to players and club staff. The agreement called for each team to hire a clinician focused on supporting players’ emotional health and well-being.
It required team clinicians to be available on-site at the team facility for at least 8-12 hours per week. They must keep all mental health treatment records confidential and create a mental health emergency action plan for the team, among other responsibilities.
At the time, 30 teams already had a mental health clinician on staff. Now, several teams have full-timers, according to Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti, the NFL’s vice president of clinical and wellness services.
“We are moving from a crisis management approach to a much more proactive approach,” NiiLampti said. “Clinicians are out there in the field. They are able to deal with whatever is happening in real time. … We are seeing a much more seamless integration of mental health, really understanding that if we prioritize our mental health, then this is going to contribute to better performances both on and off the pitch.”
NiiLampti also highlighted the difference between mental health and mental illness.
“We do a better job in education,” she said. “Historically people equate mental health and mental illness in the same sense. So I think part of what’s happening is we’re seeing a lot more education around this idea of mental health as this overall thing and this universal thing that we all have. But we have to prioritize it. So what does it look like if we’re intentional and make sure our sanity is positive, just like we make sure we we get stronger physically in the gym, so I think that helps to lessen some of the stigma because it’s a hands-on approach, especially for athletes.”
This season, players have stepped up to put their mental health first. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley left the team in November to deal with mental health issues. Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Lane Johnson has missed three games and has spoken about his anxiety issues that caused him to miss three games.
“I lived in hell for a long time,” Johnson said. “Don’t bottle it up. And it’s easy to do. It’s easy to avoid situations that you don’t want to go through, some that are going to be difficult.”
League players expressed their support for Ridley and Johnson. Gone is the old school sucker mentality. More and more guys are asking for help for various reasons.
“The NFL is a microcosm of society and what we’ve seen, especially with the pandemic, is a greater willingness to utilize mental health resources,” NiiLampti said.
Although many resources are available, players past and present must take the first step.
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Former NFL player Phillip Adams, accused of fatally shooting six people in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before killing himself in April, suffered from an unusually severe brain condition, according to his autopsy.
Adams’ family said he “desperately sought help from the NFL, but was denied all claims due to his inability to remember things and handle seemingly simple tasks.” His agent previously told the AP Adams that he does not participate in the range of physical and mental health programs available to former players through the league and its players’ union.