Eagles’ Brandon Brooks Teaches Us that an Athlete’s Mental Health is Just as Important as Physical Fitness
Staff Therapist George James, Psy.D., LMFT has worked extensively with professional athletes, adult men and young adult men on various issues including defining manhood, career and work-life balance. He also specializes in helping couples improve the quality of their relationship, reconcile conflicts and overcome intense situations such as affairs, lack of communication, parenting struggles and much more.
When someone is physically unfit to perform their job, we urge them to go to the doctor, or to rest so they can heal. Unfortunately, mental illness is often seen as a weakness and not a medical condition that requires treatment. Most people will go to the doctor if they are experiencing physical pain, yet they may be hesitant to see a therapist if they are struggling internally. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness or a personal flaw; it is a health issue that needs professional attention.
We often put professional athletes on a pedestal, and even consider them “super human.” This can make it difficult for them to acknowledge mental health issues, let alone get help and treatment, and speak out about their experiences. Most athletes strive for the next level of accomplishment, often at the risk of their physical and emotional health. As fans, we want to see and experience their greatness, but we may forget their physical and emotional limitations and pain.
I believe that real strength lies in acknowledging you have a problem and seeking help. This allows you show up and be better in all aspects of your life.
Last year, Eagles’ right guard Brandon Brooks went public about getting treatment for his anxiety disorder that had kept him off the field. After missing two games due to a perceived stomach illness, he was hospitalized and sought help. When discussing his season with The Inquirer, Brooks explained,
“I guess the mental awareness tip was just like, if you pull a hamstring and you need ice to [stimulate] your rehab, it’s the same thing mentally. It’s a lot of stuff that goes on in life. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes you need someone to talk to. Sometimes things are deeper than what you think, or you have something from your past that’s affecting you, and you don’t even know. But it’s nice to be able to talk to somebody on a confidential level and get Ph.D. advice.”
“I really just hope I can reach further to help people out going through the same thing,” Brooks said. “You can overcome it, although times can seem at their darkest, brighter days are coming.”
I applaud athletes who use their platform to raise awareness about mental illness by sharing their own experiences. This is a powerful tool in fighting stigma and encouraging people to get the life-saving care that they need. It’s especially powerful for athletes to do this because we can see that internal struggle and external success coexist. As Brooks explained, everyone is going through something in their personal lives, even if we can’t see it.
As a therapist, I specialize in working with athletes in my practice. I can attest to their experiences as being the same struggles that we all have. Over the years, I have worked with many athletes dealing with a variety of issues. Recently, I’ve seen more athletes share their desire to get help with mental health concerns.
There is a shift occurring in our perception of mental health. In part due to celebrities raising awareness, people are becoming more open to acknowledging mental health issues and treating them as we would treat any other medical condition.
Here are some things we can all remember when we’re struggling internally:
- We are not alone.
Often times, the way you and the things you do to deal with those feelings can make you feel like you are by yourself. The truth is you are not alone. Everyone is struggling with something. Let professional athletes and other celebrity spokespeople serve as inspiration and hope to heal and recover. You are not alone and you do not have to work through this alone. Remember who your “teammates” are.
- Our mental health affects all aspects of our lives.
Having an untreated mental illness or unmanaged stress can impact your performance on the field as well as off the field (with family, finances, relationships, and more). As an athlete, it can keep you from playing, or increase your chances of getting injured, suspended, or cut. As a fan, neglecting to get help can affect your job, your relationships and family, and your physical health. Similarly, getting the help you need will positively affect all parts of your life. It’s all connected.
- There is no shame in getting the help we need.
Admitting that you need help is the first major step in the healing process. Even if you are able to “play through the pain,” the longer you wait to get the help, the more your emotional struggle will impact your life. The longer you wait, the more you will try to overcompensate and numb the emotional pain. You go to your trainer or doctor when you feel physical pain. Getting help for emotional pain works the same way. When you are experiencing emotional pain, talk to a trusted friend, family member, a therapist, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Taking care of your emotional health is important for your overall well-being and will improve your performance in your sport and in your life. The next time you find yourself comparing your life to that of a seemingly-perfect professional athlete, remember that they go through the same internal stuff that you do.
As Brooks stated in a June 2017 Inquirer article, “[A] lot of people look at it and say, ‘Well, if I was getting paid that, nothing would stop me.’ That’s bull, man. This is life. We’re people. We go through stuff. We’re human, and the best thing for me was to face this head on and battle through it.”
As we see, nobody’s perfect, not even professional athletes. But what we all can do is acknowledge when we have a problem and seek help. That is when we see true strength.