Fans ‘think we are superheroes’: Athletes move to forefront of mental health discussion

Fans mourned the death of popular German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who let few known he was suffering from depression. More athletes are starting to come forward about mental illness. (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide Jan. 16. A day later, family and friends remembered Madison Holleran, a member of the track and field team at the University of Pennsylvania who jumped to her death off a parking garage four years earlier. In February, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan tweeted in the middle of the night, “This depression get the best of me,” spurring important discussions about the difficult issue of mental health.

During this first week of Mental Health Awareness Month, the stories of athletes’ struggles are being told, despite a culture of silence in the world of sports.

“I feel like (fans) think that we are superheroes to everybody,” Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis said. “We go through things in life, even though you guys see us on TV playing a game we love and having fun. We still go through our ups and down as well.”

Nearly 24 percent of 465 athletes at NCAA Division I private universities reported a “clinically relevant” level of depression, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Drexel and Kean universities. Female athletes had a higher prevalence rate: 28 percent vs. 18 percent.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, who recently revealed to The Players’ Tribune that he suffers panic attacks, wrote that “I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak.”

Athletes are considered superhuman by many fans, and the memories they create are indelible: LeBron James bringing home a championship to Cleveland. Odell Beckham Jr.’s Super Bowl snag. Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after his walk-off home run in the World Series.

But lost behind the legends are the struggles of the human being.

In Arizona, it’s no different.

Ulis played at Kentucky, one of the elite college basketball programs in the country, so he knew early on he would be looked at as Superman by some fans, even though he’s just like everyone else.

With such high fan expectations, it can be hard for athlete to share what’s going on inside. In his book “A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke,” author Ronald Reng said the German soccer standout who committed suicide in 2009 “summoned up a huge amount of strength to keep his depression secret. He locked himself away in his illness.”

Some athletes never have to face the struggles of depression or anxiety. But others may not even be aware that what they’re feeling is caused by mental stress.

The Suns’ Jared Dudley, an NBA veteran of 11 years, said he has been fortunate to not have faced mental health issues. However, many players struggle with panic attacks or other issues related to depression and anxiety, he said, but don’t pursue treatment because they’re not aware there’s a problem.

“I think they don’t know the feeling,” Dudley said. “I don’t think they know what it is. They’ve never had it before. As a kid, everything is happy go-go. You’re just playing basketball. There is really no pressure. They aren’t hiding it (mental health issues), they just don’t know what it is and haven’t diagnosed it.”

Even if they do know what the problem is, the solution doesn’t always come easily. Although most professional teams offer such services as sports psychologists, they can’t force players to take advantage of them. A stigma about asking for help exists around locker rooms, players agree.

One NFL player, who did not wish to be identified, said he has struggled with depression since he was in junior high school and that many of his teammates dealt with similar issues. Although the league offers help, he said, it needs to do more.

It is hard to be a man and talk about mental health, “especially in the black community,” he said.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men are 3.53 times more likely to die by suicide than women.

For some pros, such as Dragan Bender of the Phoenix Suns, the pressure and mental stress of being a pro athlete is simply part of the job.

“You have to be a professional and deal with that stuff,” Bender said.

The pressure is more challenging for others. Sports is a volatile industry filled with uncertainty and pressure to perform, which can affect an athlete’s life in ways he or she has never experienced before, experts say.

Jake Lamb, third baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said he has a way to deal with pressures before they get to him.

“Everyone has their issues, whether its mental health or other things,” he said. “Talking to a friend or family members always helps me.”

Support systems are key. For Dudley, it’s his family and relationship with God. For the NFL player, it’s his sons, some friends and his pastor. Without these support systems, players’ lives could very well take a different path.

Challenges can be harder for those still inching toward adulthood. In addition to Hilinski and Holleran, in March of 2013 Matt Jungemann, a high school lacrosse player in Utah, added his name to the list of the estimated 44,965 Americans who die each year by suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States but second highest for those ages 15 to 24, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Love, DeRozan and other athletes who are willing to come forward are starting important dialogues, helping not only one another but everyone who’s affected by mental health issues.

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