In the United States, one of the most publicly respected – and publicly criticized – jobs you can have is that of a professional athlete.
Steve Smith Sr., former Pro-Bowl wide receiver for the Ravens and Panthers, who retired in 2017 after playing 16 seasons, knows the pressure all too well.
“Too often taboo, depression is shut behind closed doors -- especially in a tough-guy sport like football, with a social media environment that glorifies successes and status,” Smith wrote in a first-person piece for NFL.com on Tuesday.
Though he primarily played with the Carolina Panthers, Smith finished his career in Baltimore as wide receiver for the Ravens from 2014 to 2016. Throughout his 16 years on the field, Smith totaled just under 15,000 yards and an impressive 1,031 receptions.
But, as he elucidates throughout the piece, Smith had trouble feeling “genuine delight” or pure joy despite finding success on the field and with his teammates.
“Despite all of my achievements, I routinely felt trapped, inferior and alone. This overwhelmed me internally and often left me mentally, physically and emotionally broken,” Smith explains. The stories of constant self-doubt and depreciation seem familiar to anyone with a history of or connection to someone with a mental illness.
An anecdote from after Smith injured his Achilles tendon stands out in particular:
I continued counseling sessions when I got to Baltimore the following year. I saw small changes in myself, but even more, I started seeing all my flaws. That's a hard thing to accept for anyone. After tearing my Achilles midway through what was to be my final season, I remember sitting in the hospital bed recalling dropped passes from 10 years prior.
In talking about his experience with counseling, Smith underscores the importance of patience, self-compassion, and recognizing that change and recovery is a lifelong process with no set end date.
However, looking back, Smith says he still wishes he had been more open, and sought help sooner. Ultimately, it’s better to reach out late than not at all.
“The best thing I ever did for my well-being was to seek help,” Smith reiterates throughout his writing.
It’s hard to open up to the world about something so stigmatized in a sport that asks you to sacrifice your body and mind. Football often labels any type of vulnerability as a weakness or an offense. But Smith’s courage and articulate response continues the conversation about how pro sports can make their players’ mental health just as much of a priority as their physical health.
After the losses of cultural figures Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, Smith hopes that we can open a dialogue on mental health without any drastic prompting events.
“All human beings have strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental,” Smith concludes. “You're not alone. Believe me.”
If you or someone close to you is struggling with depression or other mental illnesses, it is never too late to reach out. Resources like www.mentalhealth.gov, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) or the Crisis Text line (HOME to 741741) can put you in touch with certified counselors or information on what to do next.
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