4 Ways the NFL Is Helping Destigmatize Mental Health Issues

Blurred background of green field with a cropped football in the frontAs the National Football League (NFL) gears up for the start of its regular season this week, policies and practices related to mental health are underway to help the league, its players, and its fans enjoy the game in healthier ways. Some concepts like stronger sport psychology and increased avenues for treatment are related more specifically to players, while other adjustments are directed toward greater inclusion at the fan level.

Making Games More Inclusive

Going to a football game can be a fun outing for the whole family, but for football fans on the autism spectrum and their families, the stadium on game day can be a daunting destination. According to the United States Department of Education, 1 out of every 50 school-age children are on the autism spectrum. For these children, noise, lights, and crowds can be overwhelming.

This year, the Seattle Seahawks implemented a toolkit for attending families with children on the autism spectrum. Included inside are earplugs, a pair of noise-reducing headphones, sensory toys, and a detailed game schedule. The kit represents a way in which the league is openly discussing mental health topics, and it highlights an effort to make games as accessible as possible.

“We realized there were a few simple things we could do that would make a positive impact for Seahawks fans on the spectrum,” said David Young, the Seahawk’s vice president of stadium operations, in a statement. “The toolkits are just the first step.”

The changes in Seattle are similar to an approach from the Indianapolis Colts launched in 2014. The Colts instituted training to multiple departments on how to better serve fans with autism. Their website also now includes an educational visualization depicting the sights and sounds of a typical stadium visit to help prepare families with children on the autism spectrum before attending a game.

Confidential Crisis Hotline

The NFL culture presents unique challenges to mental health. While symptoms and conditions can present in professional sports of all types, on the national stage of American football, the public attention can reach another level. Current players, former players, and coaches may experience a form of separation anxiety as they close out their careers in the league. In the process, they can quickly lose the social support a team often brings, along with a sense of purpose.

Familial problems, financial difficulties, and game-related injuries have also been seen as common aggravating factors among those retired from the sport—difficulties sometimes exacerbated by mental health issues. The NFL Life Line attempts to connect members with the assistance they need before difficulties develop into crises.

The NFL Life Line was first developed four years ago as a confidential support and services link to active and former players, coaches, team staff, and their families. The program integrates assistance and referrals for mental well-being, crisis support, suicide prevention, and treatment of substance abuse addictions. The service can be used anonymously and is staffed by independent counselors. More recent additions include making the service available as an online chat.

Depression and Suicide Awareness

A study in the journal JAMA Neurology in 2013 found that 40% of the former NFL players examined showed signs of cognitive impairment. Researchers also observed a frequency of symptoms associated with depression, including weight fluctuation, mood swings, and low energy. Most of the former players studied did not realize these symptoms had anything to do with brain trauma.

Depression is an ongoing concern even among active players, but researchers have found it is surprisingly common among former NFL players. “It’d be easier to start with which ones do not have depression,” former Green Bay Packer Aaron Taylor told ESPN when asked about retirees. “Observationally, it’s a significant percentage.”

Some athletes may be more affected by stigma attached to seeking help, with many seeing it as an indication of weakness. This can cause athletes to isolate themselves from treatment, and they may even shut out those closest to them as they attempt to deal with their symptoms alone.

Some athletes may be more affected by stigma attached to seeking help, with many seeing it as an indication of weakness. This can cause athletes to isolate themselves from treatment, and they may even shut out those closest to them as they attempt to deal with their symptoms alone.The NFL Players Association runs a program headed by former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple. Having lost his own son to suicide, Hipple was silent about his own experience with bouts of depression and suicidal ideation for years. Now he helps others work through the pain.

“When a player’s career ends, he can suddenly have depression, situational or otherwise, presenting itself as grief, hypertension, weight gain, and loss of sleep” Hipple said in an NFL Player Engagement interview. “Stress takes its toll.”

Meanwhile, the league is also taking a harder look at the long-term costs players experience due to concussions. Research is ongoing to define a potential link between depression and a condition often seen from repeated blows to the head: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Levels of depression with CTE can range from moderate to extreme. After Junior Seau died by suicide in 2012, the retired New England Patriot and longtime San Diego Chargers linebacker was discovered to have CTE. The year before, former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson also died by suicide. Duerson left a note asking for his brain to be used for future CTE research.

Sport Psychology

For active players, sport psychology has proven to be a multifaceted tool. It can improve performance on the field and help players maintain focus, control emotions, and overcome doubt. It also helps lay solid groundwork for facing post-career difficulties that are often unique to professional athletes.

Some players end their careers after an injury, others due to aging. Many players are still relatively young when they retire, and they are often left with an uncertain path. For the majority who are not at the upper sponsorship level, their main source of income is also gone.

Part of successful sport psychology is preparing athletes for the end of their career, offering an emotional foundation and perspective for moving forward and transitioning into life after a professional sports career. Sport psychologists also assist with players who do not intuitively feel comfortable in the spotlight. Social anxiety can become inflamed under the intense scrutiny and pressure involved with racing for a Super Bowl ring. By having a mental health professional on-hand to advise, the hope is more players can avoid issues like self-medicating in an attempt to overcome such challenges privately.

By becoming more inclusive and aware of mental health, the NFL can hopefully score a major victory over fear, silence, and stigma.


  1. Barker, P. (2014, September 26). Indianapolis colts improve game day experience for fans with autism. Retrieved from http://www.stadiumjourney.com/news/09-26-2014/821/indianapolis-colts-improve-game-day-experience-for-fans-with-autism
  2. Eifling, S. (2013, February 5). Retired NFL players are depressed and don’t even know it: study. Retrieved from http://deadspin.com/5980984/retired-nfl-players-are-depressed-and-dont-even-know-it-study
  3. Ingoldsby, J. (n.d.). Former Detroit Lions QB Eric Hipple is leader in fight against depression. Retrieved from http://www.nflplayerengagement.com/next/articles/detroit-lions-eric-hipple-leader-in-fight-against-depression/
  4. McPhillips, E. (2016, June 11). The increasing importance of sports psychologists. Retrieved from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/the-increasing-importance-of-sport-psychologists
  5. Reed, J. (2012, July 31). NFL demonstrates we all have a role to play in advancing suicide prevention. Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/news/nfl-demonstrates-we-all-have-role-play-advancing-suicide-prevention
  6. Seattle Seahawks make games more autism-friendly. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/news/news-item/seattle-seahawks-make-games-more-autism-friendly
  7. Stong, C. (2013, June 21). Concussion may lead to high depression rate in retired NFL players. Retrieved from http://www.mdedge.com/neurologyreviews/article/76182/traumatic-brain-injury/concussion-may-lead-high-depression-rate
  8. Trotter, J. (2015, February 25). Depression prevalent in ex-players. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/page/hotread150225/depression-suicide-raise-issue-mental-health-former-nfl-players

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Hyland D

    September 9th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    Oh please don’t get me started on all of these NFL players right now.
    Most of them are spoiled and feel entitled to something that is not theirs to begin with.
    Stand up for the anthem, be proud to be who you are, and then we can talk.

  • Wells

    September 9th, 2016 at 2:05 PM

    They are making great strides raising awareness in so many areas and whether you agree with their politics or not you have to admit that these are men who have a voice and people will listen to them, so what a great topic mental health awareness is and think about how many people that they can reach and impact with this work.

  • Gary

    September 10th, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    They need to do something to improve their public image. They have taken quite a beating over the past few years really based on the actions of a few stupid decisions.

  • Georgia

    September 12th, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    Any time that a high profile organization such as the NFL gets behind such a worthy cause then you can always count on the fact that this is going to get a lot of people on board with their message.

    I think that the more that they use their voice to shine a light on some of the things that are legitimately wrong in our society then the more involvement that we will see with people wanting to make some substantial changes.

  • wayne t

    September 13th, 2016 at 10:21 AM

    These are football players, not mental health advocates and nor should we expect them to be anything more than that.

  • Jan

    September 14th, 2016 at 2:25 PM

    So these may not be the people that you would personally look up to but we have to understand that there are a lot of people especially the younger generation who do look to these men for what to wear and what to say and yes even how to act with their partners. I think that it is important for them to realize that they may not have necessarily signed on to be role models but by virtue of their jobs and roles in society they are naturally going to be. They need to think about that with every word that they publicly say and every step they take.

  • Pete

    September 15th, 2016 at 12:53 PM

    So much bad press they haven’t had much of a choice

  • Josie

    September 16th, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    I have not heard of the NFL life line, but thsi sounds like a really awesome service that they are providing.

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