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Indianapolis Colts lead the way in NFL’s effort to kick the stigma around mental health issues

Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts have gone to great lengths to lead the NFL’s efforts to fight the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The primary goals of Kicking the Stigma are detailed on the campaign landing page, which is also where individuals and companies can donate to the cause.

Naturally, it’s impossible to effectuate change without first raising some awareness. For instance, the Kicking the Stigma website explains that “One in five U.S. adults — including one in four Hoosiers — suffer from some form of mental health disorder. These are our friends and neighbors who struggle every day with depression, anxiety, addiction, and other illnesses that take away the quality of life for them and their loved ones.”

What makes mental health issues so easy to overlook is that the presence of these issues cannot be easily seen and they are rarely discussed. The broader public attitudes about discussing mental health issues are on display in almost any television show or movie. Any mention of seeking help for mental health issues, any acknowledgment that someone might need to talk about these issues by visiting a “shrink,” is often represented as embarrassing and extremely uncomfortable.

Odd that suffering from a physical ailment doesn’t create the same kind of issue. Most folks are comfortable being seen in public clearly impacted by a cold or illness. Most are comfortable going about their day if they’re physically injured, even if the injury requires the use of crutches, a cast, or a walking boot.

In my experience, it isn’t uncommon for these folks to be all too eager to share what happened that caused their injury.

Why is mental health so different? Should it be?

Doctors and surgeons can treat physical ailments through physical procedures, including surgery, rest, and rehabilitation. Diagnosing physical ailments is more often straightforward. X-rays and MRIs or other diagnostic tests can allow medical professionals to see injuries and properly diagnose their severity to create an effective treatment plan.

The truth is, opening up about mental health issues is incredibly important. Mental health professionals more often rely heavily on discussing challenges and obstacles that create issues that won’t show up in a scan. How is it possible to treat mental health issues, through therapy or medication, if the diagnosis never occurs?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Indianapolis discusses these issues and points out that a failure to open up about mental health often leads to self-medication.

As should come as no surprise, self-medicating frequently exacerbates existing challenges by creating addiction and other unintended side effects. Numerous studies show that people suffering from mental illness frequently turn to the use of illegal drugs as a way to cope and outline the often devastating impacts of these decisions.

When efforts to self-medicate fail, things can turn for the worse. The Kicking the Stigma campaign points out that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10-34. As you might expect, survivors of suicide — meaning family members or loved ones left behind after an individual takes their own life — are deeply at risk of suffering from mental health issues of their own.

This pattern of behaviors and the impact it leaves on the community is incredibly concerning. The cycle that needs to be broken is: failing to get help for mental illnesses or to get treatment for those whose mental health needs attention, leading to self-medication and drug abuse, and sometimes suicide, which perpetuates mental health issues for loved ones who are caught in the wake.

The way to break the cycle is to open up about mental health issues and to seek professional diagnosis and treatment.

Anyone who is reading this story who feels that they need immediate help to get control of mental health issues of their own, please dial 2-1-1.

The stigma must go. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s incredibly important that people open up about these issues and understand that as more people share, fewer people suffering from mental health issues will feel isolated.


The world of professional sports is often viewed through an unrealistic lens. Owners, general managers, coaches, and players are all held to an extremely high standard. Fans are the consumers and the cities where professional franchises reside utilize state and city funds, cough taxpayer funds cough, to build the stadiums where games are held.

In this way, fans come to claim ownership over the entire production. Athletes are entertainers, their physical gifts and high salaries make them responsible for delivering a product that is worthy of the price of admission. It is what leads to the “shut up and dribble” mentality or a rush to judgment for off-field mistakes.

Athletes aren’t the only ones who take on the demands of mass public scrutiny. Celebrities in nearly any sphere, politicians, and now seemingly anyone who establishes a serious following on social media can find themselves the targets of mass criticism.

Similarly, military service members are rarely known by the masses on an individual level but their presence and the outcomes of their activities are heavily covered in the media, and macro opinions about those activities often result in scrutiny directed at individuals who may have not played a role in whatever drew public attention in the first place.

Members of each of these public spheres are treated as something more than just an individual. The expectations placed upon them are unforgivingly high.

It’s no surprise that the environment professional athletes operate in creates the opportunity for pretty intense mental health challenges. The demands and pressure coming from seemingly every angle, the financial stakes, the family expectations, the competitive drive needed to beat opponents or to simply maintain a spot on an NFL roster are incredibly taxing mentally and emotionally. It’s even harder to sustain that level of mental and emotional focus over the course of an entire season and offseason, and harder yet to do so at an elite level for years.

Remember, most professional athletes are fresh out of college. Even “old” NFL football players rarely extend late into their thirties. Perhaps fans need to do a better job of keeping the very human realities of professional athletes, entertainers, and other public figures in perspective.

With fame will always come more pressure and the opportunity for greater scrutiny. A megaphone will invite reactions and feedback from a larger audience. But at the end of the day, professional athletes, coaches, general managers, and owners (as well as other public figures and celebrities) all drive to their homes, have relationships with friends and family members (which comes with good and bad) and drive to work in the morning. They have good days and bad days, make good decisions and bad ones, and suffer from wins and losses that don’t show up on any scoreboard.

This is what makes the Indianapolis Colts’ efforts to lead the NFL charge to kick the stigma around mental health issues and disorders so powerful. The megaphone is large and the people behind these efforts are just that — people. If they’re willing to open up about their own challenges, even in the face of mass public feedback and scrutiny, shouldn’t the rest of us be willing to do the same?

Please visit the Kicking the Stigma campaign landing page to donate to an incredibly important effort.