Monday, the National Football League, the NFL Players Association and Cigna Healthcare joined forces to host “Beyond The Physical: A Symposium on Mental Health in Sports” at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this forum provided dynamic panels featuring NFL players and legends as well as mental health organizations, caregivers, medical providers and media personalities, as all parties were driven to raise awareness around mental health and promote a culture where everyone, including athletes, are encouraged to seek the help and support they need to achieve overall wellness.
A highlight from the forum was Warrick Dunn’s insightful speech looking back on his years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He opened up about the death of his mother in 1993, raising his brothers and sisters while never resolving the effects stemming from his mother’s death. It was not until he joined the Atlanta Falcons, did Dunn accept counseling.
“Maybe, I need to do this for myself. Can you help me find a counselor?”, Dunn said during his speech. “And still, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was looking for someone with years of experience but someone who also lived within close proximity to myself. I found someone and I called, set up an appointment … but I didn’t want anyone to see me coming in. Because of who I was, they accommodated me.”
In the long run, many NFL players struggle as they transition to life after football.
“If a player opens up that you should engage with them and create a safe space,” CBS Sports analyst Aaron Taylor said. “There needs to be an authority that uses the holistic approach to establish a purpose and identity for a player during their playing days.”
The panelists included NFL wide receiver and co-founder of Project 375 Brandon Marshall, former NFL cornerback Asher Allen, former Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn, Atlanta Falcons senior director of player affairs Kevin Winston as well as representatives from Active Minds, Mental Health America (MHA) of Georgia, the American Psychological Association, and Campaign to Change Direction, among others. Shanti Das, founder of the “Silence The Shame” initiative for mental health awareness, served as the event emcee.
“Too often in the world of sports, discussions about mental wellness happen during a point of crisis, or when it’s too late,” said Dr. Nyaka Niilampti, Director of Player Wellness for the NFLPA. “However, we know that in order to excel athletically, mental health needs to have as much focus as physical health. We feel fortunate to be able to use the platform of sports to engage in this conversation, and the more dialogue we can spark to increase awareness and decrease stigma around mental health, the more positive change that we will see.”