Athletes speak out on World Mental Health Day

Each year on Oct. 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates World Mental Health Day, an annual campaign designed to acknowledge mental health issues across the globe, as well as to uplift those combating stigma and providing healthcare in the mental health workforce. “The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide,” reads the WHO website.

In addition to the many organizations that practice in this field, others choose to recognize this day as well, including the professional athlete community. From basketball players to sports psychologists and everything in between, those in the sports world have used their platforms to share resources, tell their stories and fight against the stigma and associated stereotypes that accompany mental struggles and athletics.

Kevin Love, power forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers and a well-known mental health advocate, posted on his personal Instagram page to promote his foundation, the Kevin Love Fund. Shortly after releasing his first article in the Player’s Tribune in 2018 that detailed his struggle with depression and anxiety, Love went on to start the fund which “strives to inspire people to live their healthiest lives while providing the tools to achieve physical and emotional well being.” The foundation partners with other nonprofits including Bring Change to Mind, which fights against mental health-related stigma, the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, which supports physical and emotional health for teens and young adults enduring hardship and Headspace, the app that provides guided mindfulness and meditation practices for athletes and non-athletes alike.

On World Mental Health Day, the Love Fund announced a new partnership with Coa, a gym-like concept for psychological fitness that “offers live, online therapist-led emotional fitness classes for your mental health,” according to an Instagram post.

Katie Lou Samuelson, a University of Connecticut (UConn) standout and now small forward for the Dallas Wings, has recently entered the mental health conversation, first coming forward in a virtual interview with ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel in May 2020. During this interview, Samuelson mentioned her involvement with a panel speaking to young girls about the importance of maintaining their mental health during quarantine. 

She went on to write a personal narrative as well, explaining that her time at UConn was far from perfect, despite the image of success that the public was used to seeing. “I was in denial about how I felt. Something in the back of my head convinced me that I was being dramatic and that nothing was actually wrong,” disclosed Samuelson in her interview. “I wanted to be seen as reliable, tough and resilient, so I kept it all to myself.”

Samuelson was ultimately able to push through her collegiate career, locking these struggles inside and doing her best to reject difficult feelings. By the time she was headed for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), she thought that maybe her transition to playing at the next level would resolve some of this isolation and grant her the space for emotional well-being. However, this was not the case, as Samuelson quickly learned that no matter where she was during her career, she must ultimately face her problems head on and make concrete efforts to prioritize her mental health.

Rather than trying to pinpoint a direct cause, Samuelson notes that “I was constantly in search of a reason why, but I’ve learned that sometimes there just isn’t a specific reason. It’s something that builds up until you can’t hold it in anymore,” in her interview. It was only then that she decided to seek out help, saying, “I was able to speak to a mental health professional, someone who had more knowledge than I did. When I started talking about things that I didn’t think made sense, it made perfect sense to them. And I felt this weight lifted from me.”

Today, she advises anyone who is going through it to not be afraid to speak up, to recognize and appreciate the differences in our personal journeys and to not wait to seek help. She highlights that although we might seem perfectly normal on the surface, we never know what someone is dealing with on the inside, and therefore it is our job as teammates, coaches, friends and family to check in with one another, and to most importantly be kind to ourselves.

During times of recognition like World Mental Health Day, some might feel seen or heard, while others might feel as if they are in an unwanted spotlight. Samuelson and Love have been able to share their stories, whereas others might simply be at a different stage in their journey. Let it be known that that is okay and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Taking one’s time to understand how we feel is only a part of the process. 

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