Mental Health Doesn't Discriminate: 10 Athletes Who Have Talked About Their Mental Illness
To say that mental illness is an important topic to talk about is a massive understatement – we need to talk about it to chip away at the attached stigma. And when you’re a professional athlete both in the public eye and under immense pressure, it’s especially imperative to keep an open dialogue. After all, these athletes are human beings, too. They just happen to have platforms that reach a greater audience. They can discuss their own struggles and, by doing so, shed light on the experiences of those who do not have as loud of a voice.
Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, soccer’s Ashlyn Harris and Abby Wambach, basketball’s Kevin Love, swimming legend Michael Phelps, and other successful athletes do speak out – and when they do, we should listen. Ahead, we’ve rounded up a list of athletes we commend for being candid about their experiences with mental illness. Just as Love has said in the past, mental illness doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anyone.
Aly Raisman, Gymnastics
Raisman, a two-time Olympic gymnast, has been open about her experience in therapy dealing with trauma related to the sexual abuse she endured from former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar. “Some days I feel like I am moving forward and then the next day it feels like 3 steps back,” the 26-year-old posted on Instagram back in February. “Sometimes when I feel like I am beginning to heal from one part of my trauma, another memory pops up.” However, PTSD, she said, won’t last forever.
Speaking out publicly prior to and during the Nassar trial had lasting effects, Raisman told POPSUGAR in a 2019 interview. “I think that going through such a hard time and speaking out publicly about something that was so tough to talk about and dealing with that part of it being so public – but also processing it privately – is really, really hard,” she said. Going to therapy, though, helps with the trauma and anxiety she still feels.
It took Raisman time to pinpoint the right mental health professionals. As she told POPSUGAR in a separate interview that same year, “it’s very hard to talk to someone about what you’re going through, so it’s important to find somebody that you really trust and somebody that also makes you feel safe and comfortable.”
Michael Phelps, Swimming
Even the most decorated Olympian of all time struggles with his mental health. Phelps, 34, talks a great deal about using therapy, and in a Talkspace commercial, he specifies that he didn’t want to be alive back in 2014. He had all of these accolades, but despite them, he was spiraling.
The swimmer, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, told POPSUGAR in a 2019 interview that he never wanted to communicate with a therapist in the past. Eventually, though, he knew he needed to.
“I’m still here,” Phelps said. “I’m still on this planet, so that’s a major change in how [therapy] has impacted my life.” Therapy not only has guided him out of suicidal thoughts but has also helped him with anxiety and depression.
Phelps recently talked about how keeping a routine, getting a good amount of sleep, and going on walks are tools he uses to manage his mental health, too, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, he admitted, has been difficult for him, but he’s pushing onward.
Simone Biles, Gymnastics
Biles, the most decorated gymnast in World Championship history and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, has discussed anxiety and depression in her life. Along with Raisman, Biles also spoke out about Nassar’s past abuse. The 23-year-old told Priyanka Chopra in the actress’s YouTube Originals special last year that going to therapy “comes back to my childhood and everything that’s happened to me being sexually abused.”
There was a time, Biles said, when depression consumed her. “I never left my room, I was sleeping all the time. I told one of my lawyers, ‘I sleep all the time because it’s the closest thing to death.'” Therapy, she told POPSUGAR in a past interview, helps her mentally, as does a solid support system. She has talked about being on antianxiety medication.
Biles has also spoken about her ADHD, which she was diagnosed with around 9 years old, saying it’s better to classify it as a superpower than a problem. “Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of [sic] nothing that I’m afraid to let people know,” she tweeted back in 2016.
Ashlyn Harris, Soccer
Harris, who was on two gold-medal-winning World Cup teams, has consistently worked with mental illness nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA). She has a history with depression, addiction, and aggression, but she told POPSUGAR in a previous interview that she knows what her triggers are, and she is equipped with all of the necessary resources such as sports psychologists and therapists.
When Harris was younger, she watched her family deal with drug and alcohol abuse, and she acted out. She was set up with a sports psychologist and started to open up. “All that aggressiveness that I saw and felt as a kid started to lift off me just because I could tell him my story,” she recalled to Orlando Sentinel.
However, Harris’s struggles continued, and before her work with TWLOHA began, she was heavily addicted to Adderall, she told Orlando Sentinel. She became involved with the nonprofit in order to help others going through similar experiences. The 34-year-old goalkeeper for the Orlando Pride said in a video for TWLOHA that her support system is full of people who lift her up when she’s struggling, her fans included.
Kevin Love, Basketball
In 2018, Love experienced a panic attack during a basketball game. The Cleveland Cavaliers helped him find a therapist, and he began speaking out about his mental health, something that he’d never done before. “So for 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem,” he wrote in a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune. “Sure, I knew on some level that some people benefited from asking for help or opening up. I just never thought it was for me. To me, it was form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”
Love, now 31, talked in a recent interview for the Aspen Institute about how he’s coping during COVID-19: “The craziest part about this is – and mental health is – that it just doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t care where you’re from – your socioeconomic status, gender profile, race. No matter what it is, it can impact you.”
Love deals with anxiety and depression, and he said during Yahoo’s “Reset Your Mindset” event on May 20, “It just shows you that success is not immune to depression or mental illness, no matter how much you’ve accomplished in your life.”
Imani McGee-Stafford, Basketball
McGee-Stafford, 25, is a mental health advocate and basketball player for the WNBA’s Wings who is stepping away for the next two seasons to pursue a law degree. She struggled with depression growing up, and in a personal essay for POPSUGAR, she details that she was raised in an abusive household.
McGee-Stafford wrote of her suicide attempts, “I could tell you the details of all three times I tried to take my life before the age of 16, ultimately culminating in me being institutionalized the first couple of weeks of my junior year of high school. But that’s not what this story is about. It’s about what happened when I woke up in the hospital drinking tar after my third attempt.”
McGee-Stafford continued, “If we’re being honest, the only thing worse than suicidal ideations is probably waking up after a failed attempt. For me, suicide was an act of control. I was so tired of hurting, feeling like I was hurting those I loved, and feeling as if my circumstances were out of my control that taking my life was the ultimate regaining of that control. Failing at that too almost felt worse than the depression itself. So I decided I’d live.”
Deja Young, Para Track and Field
Last fall, Young, a US Paralympic athlete, won the 200-meter T47 event at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. Three years earlier, before the Rio Paralympics, she attempted suicide.
Young told The National that pressure to perform well as a student athlete spiraled out of control. “I didn’t talk to anyone and finally I broke, had a suicide attempt, and ended up in hospital. It was literally two months before the games and I had a decision to make to see whether I was strong enough to make it.”
Young, now 23, went on to win two gold medals, and she said asking for help was the first step to recovery. She spent months before the 2016 Paralympics in a mental institution. She wrote in a recent essay for teamusa.org, “Depression is a constant battle within yourself and it feels like it is endless. It also feels like there is no chance of winning. I finally realized that I didn’t have to lose. I realized that I don’t have to let my depression take me away from everyday life.”
Mary Cain, Track and Field
Cain, 24, made headlines in 2019 when she was featured in an op-ed video for The New York Times and discussed the abuse she endured while on the now-shut-down Nike Oregon Project team. She was told to lose pounds at a dangerous rate because it would make her “faster,” and she was weighed in front of her peers. It got so bad that she began to self-harm and had thoughts of ending her life.
“I felt so scared, I felt so alone, and I felt so trapped. And, I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself, and nobody really did anything or said anything,” Cain said, continuing on to explain that eventually, “I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore, I was just trying to survive.”
Note: Head coach Alberto Salazar was banned from the sport for four years due to doping violations. He was also placed on the United States Center for SafeSport’s temporarily banned list in January 2020.
Brandon Marshall, Football
Marshall, a 36-year-old former NFL wide receiver, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2011 during an outpatient program. BPD is characterized by disruptions of mood and behavior that, according to a psychiatrist POPSUGAR spoke to in a previous interview, “are generally triggered by external stresses, real or misperceived.” Symptoms can include unstable self-image and relationships, impulsive behavior, and mood swings – and BPD can oftentimes coincide with other mental illnesses.
“I remember the doctors there gave me a pamphlet on BPD, explaining the signs and symptoms, and I started highlighting the things I had been feeling,” Marshall wrote for The Players’ Tribune six years later. “By the time I was done, the whole damn pamphlet was yellow.” He discussed experiencing depression and going days without speaking to people.
Those three months in an outpatient program, Marshall said, changed his life. “I was able to get to the root of things that had been holding me back for years, and it allowed me to unlock my true potential,” he explained. Being mentally tough and hiding emotions was ingrained in Marshall since he was a kid, but he wrote that, now, he realizes mental health is the exact opposite – you have to talk about it. So that’s why he and his wife started Project 375, a foundation dedicated to advocacy.
Abby Wambach, Soccer
As a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and a World Cup champion, Wambach is considered an icon in her sport. But during her career, she struggled with addiction. In her 2016 memoir, Wambach details going through drug and alcohol abuse as well as depression and her road to becoming sober.
Wambach told The New York Times that everything escalated when she was nearing her retirement and dealing with issues in her marriage. “I was having an existential crisis. I didn’t know what I would be without soccer as my main identity,” she said, adding that she used drugs and alcohol as a means to “counterbalance the pain.” And things got worse after she retired – a DUI ended up being a wake-up call for her.
Now 39, Wambach uses coping mechanisms such as meditation and running to get through tough days. “People are so uncomfortable talking about mental health because they can’t fix it,” she said in a video with Well Being Trust. “As soon as I started talking about it, I immediately felt like this is what I’ve been needing to do. The number one thing anyone should ever say to somebody is that they’re not alone.”