Stigma is starting to dissipate

The high school and college sports seasons are about to start again and a lot of us have been wondering for a while what we’re going to see on the field, the court or the ice this year.

However, for the first time, it seems like we’re finally paying attention to what we don’t normally see — that’s how people are doing once the games are over.

This fall, chances are you’ll be at a football game late in the year and you might see this scenario. Players standing on the sidelines of a football game with linked arms as the season comes down to one final play.

The weight is entirely on the shoulders of the kicker, who is lining up to drill a 47-yard field goal and send his team in the playoffs. The kicker is usually a forgotten member of the team and he only gets attention when it matters.

Now the team’s fate is on him and the pressure is overwhelming. The ball gets snapped from the center to the holder and he kicks it. The ball looks like it’s going to sail wide, but it managed to tuck itself inside the right uprights and the crowd erupts in cheers.

This winter, you might be at a basketball game. It’s a rivalry contest and trash talk has been constant throughout the week between not only the players but the fans as well. The game is tied and the home team has the ball.

The coach has just finished her speech and puts the ball in the hands of her best player, her shooting guard.

The coach tells her player to wait for her opportunity and then take the winning shot.

The guard gets an inbound pass from her teammate and dribbles down the seconds. She fakes a step and sees her opportunity. She drives past the defender, but as she’s moving toward the basket, she doesn’t see another opponent stick out her hand.

The ball pops loose and rolls down the court in the other direction. The defender that knocked the ball out races down the court, picks up the ball, dribbles to the basket and puts in a breakaway layup right before the buzzer sounds.

Weeks have passed since those two incidents. Everything seems to be OK at school with both of the players, but once they get home, it’s clearly not.

That kicker who won the game as it turns out has crippling anxiety. When he made that kick, he jumped into the air, pumping his fist and celebrated with his teammates. Later that night, he went home and laid awake hoping that he’ll never be in that situation again.

As time goes on, that kick will be in his dreams. Even though he knows he made it, he’ll constantly wonder if this time, he’ll miss it. This will be a recurring event.

The girl who had the ball stolen from her appears to have moved on. She’s always looked confident, has lots of friends and was even elected prom queen by her peers.

What you don’t know about her is that she’s battled depression for years and that moment has been etched in her head for months.

She’ll hang out and watch movies with friends and will laugh at jokes, but when she goes home at night, all she can think about is that game.

She cries herself to sleep at night, hoping she can get a chance to do it over.

Last summer, I wrote a column about this same topic.

I said that it was time to pay attention to mental illness and that we need to stop stigmatizing those of us who suffer from depression, anxiety, anger issues, suicidal thoughts and others ailments.

I was hoping it was resonate with some people and that we can start changing how we think about it.

I played out some similar scenarios where athletes felt alone and that no one could understand how they felt.

This year, it’s different, though, because someone had the courage and the care to ask a simple question:

“How are you doing?”

The kicker had a friend ask him that one day at school. After some prodding, he came clean and talked about how he can’t stop thinking about that kick.

Even though it ended in terrific fashion, it didn’t seem that way anymore.

He talked with the friend and understood that he needed help. He went to see a counselor the next day and things gradually started to improve.

The basketball player also had a friend reach out to her. During a bonfire at the beach before graduation, the basketball team had gotten together and laughed about all the fun times they had together. The player desperately hoped that no one would bring up the rivalry game and nobody did.

She pretended that she was having fun and went with the flow like normal. When things quieted down, a teammate came over and asked how she was doing. The girl insisted she was fine, but that she appreciated her friend for reaching out. Later that night, the friend got a text from the girl and all the emotions finally came out.

They talked on the phone for hours as the girl unleashed all the pain she was suffering from the game and for the first time in a long time, she started to feel a little better.

Those scenarios aren’t easy fixes, though. It takes a lot of time to overcome those problems and sometimes, they don’t get overcome. However, by just taking the time to listen, you can help those who suffer from those problems.

More and more athletes are coming out and saying how they’ve battled mental illness and that’s something to be proud of.

NBA player Kevin Love wrote for the Player’s Tribune and talked about his experience with panic attacks and therapy.

Tennis star Serena Williams discussed how anxiety affected her performance on the court and how having her daughter has helped calm that.

Swimming legend Michael Phelps talked about his bouts with depression with USA Today.

Toronto Raptors player DeMar DeRozan has been very open when discussing his fights with depression and recently said something we should all keep in mind when thinking about mental illness.

He said “People say, ‘What are you depressed about? You can buy anything you want.’ I wish everyone in the world was rich so they would realize money isn’t everything.”

Yes, even the most wealthy, talented and successful people in sports battle mental issues.

Just like the guy in the cubicle next door to you, the lady in your bowling league or the kid on your high school hockey team, they’re taught to keep it to themselves because they’ve been told at some point, why should you be sad, or what do you have to worry about?

So they keep things quiet and don’t tell anybody so they aren’t mocked, looked down upon or most often, so they won’t bring anybody else down with them.

As I said in my previous column, I’ve battled these issues myself. There are days where I am genuinely happy, but there are many others where I’m really struggling to get through the day.

This used to cripple me, but with the encouragement and support of others, I realized that I have help if I need it and I learned to recognize what could cause my depression and anxiety to increase and I try to control them the best I can.

If it gets to be too much for me, I know that people will listen and assist me.

Ultimately that’s what we need. Assistance and somebody to talk to.

It’s the same for athletes just as much as writers, miners, nurses, teachers, police officers and other professions.

As hard as all of this is, we’re slowly making progress and the more people come out in support of mental health, the easier it will be to addressing it.

So if you’re still out there suffering, wondering if anybody cares or will understand what you’re going through, continue to speak up.

The clouds of stigma may still be around, but it’s starting to clear up out there.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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