Responding to the Quiet Crisis of Mental Health in Athletics | Opinion

Famed football player and coach Lou Holtz said it best: "Life is ten percent what happens to you, and ninety percent how you respond to it."

We all have had our lives dramatically altered by COVID-19. The ramifications of the virus have impacted us all uniquely.

I believe there is an impetus behind us re-examining mental health in modern day athletics; an urgency compounded by the opioid epidemic which our country presently faces.

It is important we respond to what is happening to our athletes who undergo immense stress day-to-day while competing in their respective sports—to address the often unspoken crises taking place within a community commonly portrayed as superheroes. These stresses are exacerbated in the lead up to, during and following sport milestones, which for a moment, have the power to allow the world to forget about the pandemic.

Watching gymnast Simone Biles' stoic response to the backlash she received at the Tokyo Olympics by putting her mental health and safety first was a particularly painful experience that resonated with me deeply.

In football, it can be easy to forget the humanity of players because our faces are hidden behind helmets. We are often handsomely paid for careers that many people can only dream of, yet so few of us have the honor of living it (only roughly 30,000 have played professional football since the NFL's inception).

That privilege comes with the burden of expectations; that our pain and suffering, be it physical or mental, should be hidden, let alone tolerated simply because we have our dream jobs.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S. every year. While most disorders are treatable, less than 37 percent receive treatment, including athletes like me. Meanwhile, almost 50 percent of those suffering from anxiety also experience depression.

Where can pain take you? Individuals from all walks of life, who have mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, are more likely to be prescribed opioids. The National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2017 reported that an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. In 2018, more than 2 million U.S. adults had opioid use disorder, 62 percent of them also had a mental illness.

I was once one of those people.

Simone Biles of Team United States competes
Simone Biles of Team United States competes in the Women's Balance Beam Final on day 11 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 3, 2021. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Throughout my career, I suffered from depression and anxiety. I felt like I couldn't address these afflictions because of the image I needed to portray before my peers, my fans, even my family. Looking back, I know that the internal pain and suffering I felt that went unaddressed for far too long deterred me from cultivating the tools to properly deal with or handle my emotions.

It took a long time, seeking counsel from others and therapy, to rehabilitate from opioid dependency and address my mental health issues. I have since entered the medicinal and recreational cannabis industry where there is tremendous growth. As an entrepreneur, I am pursuing greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the industry. I am proud to now be a better father, businessman and overall human.

Yet the challenges so many others face continue.

The NFL has rightly taken steps to address the mental health of players. I commend their "Total Wellness" initiative seeking to change professional football culture when it comes to psychological well-being—highlighting that football players need to get help for mental health challenges the same way they seek help for a twisted ankle. The NFL needs to seek the expertise of psychologists to educate and inform players and others about the importance of mental health on and off the field.

It's an important first step that needs to be replicated. Across the pond, Chelsea soccer star Christian Pulisic has openly stated his struggles while promoting the fact that there is nothing wrong with seeking help.

There are solutions that we in the athletic community have been waiting for, have been looking for, around the world and most certainly in the United States, for far too long. Athletes can lead by example by raising their voices. Not doing so poses dire consequences.

I'm incredibly proud of Simone Biles. And I'm excited to work with others in tackling the mental health crisis as one of the next stages in my professional career off the gridiron.

But I'll need help. It's in our hands to instill lasting change.

Dominique Easley is a former NFL first-round draft pick and a defensive tackle for the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams. He is now a successful investor, entrepreneur and mental health and wellness advocate.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.