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May is Mental Health Month, a topic that has been increasingly discussed in the public eye. Approximately 46.6 million adults in the US face the reality of managing mental illness every day. That is a staggering 1 in 5 adults in the US population. The importance of mental health awareness has also been swirling around the world of sports, affecting athletes, teams, leagues and brands alike.

Earlier this year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver voiced concern during a speaking engagement that many of the players in his league “are genuinely unhappy”. Beyond Sport, one of the nation’s preeminent sport for good organizations, is hosting their first ever Stay in the Game event on June 11th, to explore sport’s role in promoting mental health and wellness.  

NBA player Kevin Love went on the TODAY show at the beginning of the month to discuss his struggles with anxiety and depression, and why he chose to share that publicly. The spot included the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI.

We spoke to Rachel Robins, Manager of PR and External Relations at NAMI about their “Why Care?” campaign during Mental Health Month, and how they are using the power of sports to amplify their message.

NAMI Background and Impact

NAMI was founded in 1979 and is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country, with more than 600 local organizations nationwide. “Mental Health Month is really where we take our year long message and amplify it,” explains Robins.

The “Why Care?” campaign was created because of how personal the word care is to people. “We all have our own personal way we react to the word care,” Robins explains. “Ultimately it comes down to sharing everyone’s personal stories and connecting to mental health.”

A year long campaign amplified during different time periods, the “Why Care?” campaign website, www.nami.org/whycare, has resources, stats and more information that the organization is encouraging people to use. In addition to Mental Health Month, the campaign will be promoted heavily in July for National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and during the first full week of October for Mental Illness Awareness Week.

In addition to resources, a helpline and campaigns like “Why Care?”, NAMI coordinates a Walks program around the country. “These are different walks that we have in neighborhoods across the country where communities can get behind and support mental health,” shares Robins. NAMI has 99 walks schedule this year, and those walks will have more than 50,000 people come out and attend nationwide.

Incorporating Sport to Promote Mental Health

The NAMI team is bullish on the power of sport to influence and promote mental health. “Specifically within the sports industry, because there are nuances that are very specific to the world of sports, we have an ambassador program for athletes and celebrities,” explains Robins. “Our ambassador program is open to anyone who has a platform and wants to use it to support mental health.”

One of NAMI’s ambassadors is Chris Hubbard of the Cleveland Browns. Hubbard has been an avid supporter of NAMI and is hosting a cars and coffee fundraiser in his hometown of Columbus, GA for the organization. “Chris talks about his own experience with mental health growing up in Columbus and some of what he had to deal with in school and different resources that were available,” says Robins. Hubbard also went undrafted and has been traded, so add that to the list of experiences that have impacted him from a mental health perspective.

“Think about it- if you are undrafted, you are wondering what you are going to do next with your life,” affirms Robins. “It’s a very challenging experience that only athletes can really know what it’s like to go through.” She mentions the hardships of relocating your entire family at the drop of a hat upon being traded as part of the mental health issues that athletes face on a regular basis.

Successful Integration of Sports Partnerships

With athletes passionate and eager to get involved like Hubbard, the impact can become so much greater. Robins runs through the different opportunities in which they plan to incorporate Hubbard, including a video of him sharing his story, support and resources for his event down in Georgia, etc.

She explains why Hubbard and ambassadors like him that are willing to share their struggles and stories with mental health are so important. “A focus area for us is to make sure we are serving the minority community and let them know there are resources and tools available,” says Robins. Hubbard is an African-American and his uncle is a veteran who has struggled with PTSD. “There are a lot of different elements to Chris’ story besides the fact that he is an athlete,” she adds. “We’re really hoping to capture those stories and get people to share them with the larger community to help continue to build awareness.”

From a broader perspective, Robins emphasizes the ability for athletes to keep the conversation going and encourage others to share. She mentions NBA stars like Kevin Love and Lamar Odom who have been open about their struggles with mental health. “What that does is like a snowball effect- the more that people share their stories, the more other people share their stories, and makes it less stigmatized,” Robins explains.

You can follow #WhyCare on Twitter to see athletes like WNBA star Imani McGee-Stafford, student athletes from the Fresno State Bulldogs, and influencers like NY Times bestselling author AJ Mendez sharing their stories about mental health.  

Outside of athletes, teams are taking advantage of the opportunity to promote mental health awareness. Robins mentions several teams around the country, including the New York Islanders and Los Angeles Sparks, have hosted Mental Health Awareness Nights during games. NAMI California has partnered with Each Mind Matters to host Mental Health Awareness Nights this month at professional games across the state. Because at its core NAMI is a grassroots organization, they have resources available in many communities across the country.

“Sport has a way of bringing people together and connecting people that’s unlike any other medium,” says Robins. She highlights that NAMI chapters and sports teams both care about their local communities, and having resources readily available at a game is a great way to show that. “Our foundation is a grassroots organization and sports provides us with a very grassroots approach,” adds Robins.

As Mental Health Month continues, will we see more stories in the sports world about the importance of mental health? Robins says yes. “Mental health is something that is definitely coming into the forefront of the sports industry,” she affirms. “How do we protect our athletes’ mental health and what can we do to get ahead of this issue? Our goal is really to get more people talking and saying ‘it’s ok’. Making sure more people know they are not alone, that’s a big thing for us.”

To learn more about NAMI or the “Why Care?” campaign, visit www.nami.org/whycare. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, contact the NAMI helpline today: 1-800-950-NAMI.

Post Author: Danielle Berman

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