The 49ers’ Solomon Thomas is familiar with the toll of mental health issues; his sister committed suicide and he subsequently battled depression. (Photo: Joe Nicholson / USA TODAY Sports)
Losing one more person to suicide is unacceptable. But how do we start making changes?
More than 17 million adults in the United States have endured at least one major depressive episode in the last year, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
And more than 17.1 million kids in the U.S. have a psychiatric disorder, according to Rogers Behavior Health.
Instead of setting these statistics off to the side as a topic that’s separate from life and separate from sports news – until a tragedy happens – let’s start talking about what those numbers mean.
For a lot of people – including athletes – mental health equates to shame, humiliation and vulnerability, when really it could be an opportunity to ask for help, develop coping skills and find joy again in a productive life.
A Wisconsin sports marketing team is launching a campaign that tackles mental health, and it seems like a really good idea.
Capture Sports Marketing of Pewaukee has teamed up with San Francisco 49er Solomon Thomas and Rogers Behavioral Health Center to create the “End Stigma. Save Lives.” campaign to encourage conversations about mental health.
Who are they?
- Thomas, 25, is a defensive end with six sacks and 23 quarterback hits in three-plus seasons. He lost his older sister to suicide and battled his own subsequent depression for a year.
- Rogers Behavioral Health Centers in Wisconsin is a not-for-profit provider of mental health and addiction services, offering treatment for adults, children and teens with depression and mood disorders, eating disorders, addiction, obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders, trauma and PTSD.
- Capture Sports Marketing works with many athletes on marketing, community service and philanthropic projects, most notably Pewaukee’s J.J. Watt, who plays for the Houston Texans.
Capture Sports Marketing is planning an announcement soon to get the campaign started. The goal: to take away the negative associations of mental health concerns with conversations, shared experiences and educated dialogue with professionals for treatment options.
“It is so OK to not be OK,” Thomas said in a moving interview with Capture.
This conversation and education is something our state needs today, tomorrow and beyond.
Suicide rates in Wisconsin increased by 40% between 2000 and 2017, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Wisconsin’s teen suicide rate is consistently higher than the national average and has been that way for a decade, according to the 2019 report from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health.
Mental health struggles have climbed considerably higher nationwide during the pandemic.
Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers fan Marissa Baylerian, 31, knows firsthand. Diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder at 16, she only confided her feelings and treatment to her sister and her parents at first.
“I was very ashamed, I was very unhappy and I was very scared,” said Baylerian.
“It took me years to be comfortable in my own skin. The illness does not define me. It is a daily battle. It is an illness. And it will probably be an illness I will fight for the rest of my life. But I will decide how strong I am, to be able to fight this. I get to choose to either win the battle or lose. And I choose to fight this battle and win.”
The former teacher and education professional has made life changes for the sake of her mental well-being. Jobs that were extremely high stress and demanding did not mesh well with her goals to be perfect. And the work of a teacher never ends.
In 2015 she checked herself into Rogers for help.
And she recently took a job at Greenfield Clinic-Children’s Wisconsin for structured hours and for a job she loves.
She also stays with her parents, talks to a therapist every three weeks or so and learned that behavioral therapy trained her with better coping skills than talk therapy.
Now she makes exercise a priority, loves composing handwritten cards of encouragement to people, and getting out in nature – especially kayaking – to take care of herself.
But the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone, especially those with depression, anxiety and OCD.
“This is an unhealthy amount of isolation,” said Baylerian. “And I do have this big fear that I’m going to get COVID or that I have it and don’t know it and that I will pass it along to someone.”
Baylerian said kids need to get the message they can and should talk to someone about how they feel. It’s a strength to talk about it, not a weakness.
And the fact is we all need to keep talking about mental health so knowledge about multiple treatment options like counseling and coping skills becomes as common as chicken soup for a cold.
When Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott opened up about the anxiety and depression he faced, before and after his brother’s suicide, it was a historic step. These issues in mental health affect every age, ethnic background, gender identity and profession, including some of the toughest athletes on earth, football players.
Thomas faced so many similar painful challenges after his sister Ella died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Coppell, Texas. Years earlier, when she was a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, she was a victim of sexual assault and then battled depression, PTSD and anxiety.
“I never imagined Ella would die by suicide,” Thomas said in a video interview with Capture Sports Marketing that is expected to be released soon.
“I knew she struggled from anxiety, I knew she struggled from depression, I knew she struggled from a traumatic experience. But she was a fighter her whole life and she just had this love to her that I thought would never die.”
Thomas said his sister was his best friend, and to honor her memory he continues to talk about mental health. In 2019 he was named a recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, given to one member of each NFL team for his sportsmanship and courage, as voted on by teammates. Thomas battled his own situational depression for a year when he realized:
“I need help, I need to talk to someone. I’m in a bad place. I need to get through this and I can’t do it on my own.”
We go to coaches to make us better athletes, we go to doctors to treat our injured hamstrings. Why don’t we go to counselors and turn to self-help tools such as meditation when life is overwhelming or sad? This step should be recognized for a natural act of progress – and free of negative connotations.
There’s strength in being vulnerable and power in getting help and getting stronger.
This campaign could be a valuable launching point for a discussion for the public and an educational tool for counselors and health care professionals and patients. It’s another way people in the sports world are using their celebrity platform for good.
For more information, go to: endstigmachangelives.org
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