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'You're not alone': Athletes speak out about mental health in the NFL

Prominent athletes are using their platforms to push for change in sports.
/ Source: TODAY

As more and more celebrities and public figures open up about their mental health, some athletes say it still feels difficult to speak candidly about their struggles. TODAY's Carson Daly sat down with four NFL players who are looking to break the stigma around mental health in sports on the newest episode of "Mind Matters TODAY."

"I still think the stigma's pretty strong," said Solomon Thomas of the Las Vegas Raiders, who said he began to seek help after the death of his sister. "That's the one reason I didn't come out and start speaking right away about my depression, about my journey, and about my sister's journey, as well. I was afraid of, like, what fans would think, if teammates would think I'm soft."

DJ Chark, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said that he first started to struggle with anxiety as a student at Louisiana State University, where he would "always be nervous," whether or not it was "football-related." However, when he entered the NFL, he worried about how his struggles would be perceived.

"If you come out and you speak on it, first thing is 'He's weak,' or, you know, 'He's not a leader.' And it's like 'Oh, well, we don't want that on the team,'" Chark said.

"We're three-part beings: We're spiritual, mental, physical," said Demario Davis of the New Orleans Saints. While being physically in shape matters to him, so does mental fitness. "...Even if you want to look at, you know, gladiators being on the field, what's going to make the best gladiator? That gladiator needs to walk out just (as) physically sharp as he is mentally sharp."

Adam Thielen, who plays for the Minnesota Vikings and uses his foundation, the Theilen Foundation, to shine a light on youth mental health, said that it's important for players to be able to be "open" with their teammates.

"I can't explain how important it is to just say 'Hey, I have some things going on and I need your help,'" Thielen said. "We're here to help them now."

Chark said that this openness has allowed him to form bonds with other players and have important conversations.

"Just know you're not alone," Chark said. "I know that for a fact, because, once I opened up, I found people who I'm able to have a conversation with, guys like you, who I never thought I'd have a conversation with."

There are a few more resources for players now, including a behavioral health program for players and families provided by the Hall of Fame, and the NFL is launching a video series highlighting resources for both players and fans. Several years ago, the NFL implemented a mental health mandate that ensures that each team has at least one therapist or psychologist on staff, a move that Thomas said was "great" but not "enough."

The four players who spoke with Carson are also using their own platforms to try to make a difference. Thomas recently launched the Defensive Line Foundation, which aims to change the conversation around mental health in sports.

"It's OK to not be OK," Thomas said. "You know, it's OK to be sad, awkward, whatever it is. Go get help. There's help available."


CORRECTION (June 3, 2021, 8:44 a.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly linked the mental health efforts between the Hall of Fame and NFL. They are separate resources and are not related.