The Mental Health of the Modern American Athlete: What Can Terrell Owens Teach Us?

Update: The AP is now reporting that this was not a suicide attempt but instead a confusion over an empty bottle of pain killers. The illness was not an overdose, but was instead the result of mixing hydrocodone, a generic form of Vicodin, and natural supplements. This does not change my main argument whatsoever, only my initial example.

In the early AM hours of Thursday, September 27, 2006 the AP reported that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens was admitted to the emergency room for an overdose of prescribed medication. It was later reported that this was a deliberate attempt at suicide, due to depression. Owens appears okay physically, though it might be sometime before he can recover mentally. The larger question is not so much about Terrell Owens, but instead about the mental health of athletes in general.

Athletes constantly put their bodies through extreme stress, testing the limits of what the human body is physically possible. However, this is not the only stress placed on athletes. There are gigantic emotional and mental stresses placed on modern athletes to constantly perform at the top of their game at all times, to always improve, to put winning above all else. If an athlete fails in any aspect, they are immediately criticized by the press and millions of sports fans.

Take Alex Rodriguez for example. Here is a superstar among superstars. One of baseball’s all time greats, who has the potential to put his name on quite a few records before he hangs up his hat. However, when he shows even the slightest signs of weakness, a small slump or failure to perform in the clutch, an entire city turns against him.

It has previously been reported that Rodriguez regularly attends therapy sessions. Many took this as negative against Rodriquez. However, considering the extreme pressure hanging over Rodriguez, that therapy may be just what holds him together. He credits his therapy as “an incredible thing” and this may be a trend that more athletes should consider following.

The pressure of success and failure and winning and losing are not the only stresses faced by the modern athlete. Copious amounts of travel and long work hours are the now the norm. These are not the prime ingredients for a healthy home life with family and friends. The divorce rate amongst athletes and their spouses is certainly nothing to be proud about. The media does not help at all, as the tabloids are quick to start a fire with even the most minor of marital problems. Therapy and regular sessions could help athletes and their families deal with the stress of separation, living on the road and constant media scrutiny.

It has been said by baseball great and hall-of-fame catcher Yogi Berra that, “Baseball is 90% mental–the other half is physical.” This is true of almost all sports. Athletes regularly and sometimes obsessively exercise the physical half, but many ignore the other 90%.

Just as physical exercise increases performance in sport, while also leading to a healthier and longer life; mental and emotional exercise can help performance in sport and more importantly, also in life.

Therapy could also help reduce the use of drugs, both performance enhancing and recreational, by athletes. Perhaps therapy would not have helped an enigma such as Ricky Williams, but perhaps a star such as Darrel Strawberry or Doc Gooden, who found themselves with success and pressure early in life, could have avoided drug use if they were instead able to find relief through emotional help, rather than chemical. This may not even help the majority of athletes who turn to drugs, but even a few success stories would be worth the cost.

Most teams at least make therapy available to the players, but these programs need to be taken to another level. Perhaps teams should require therapy just as they would weight training or other physical conditioning. This therapy would not need to involve intense sessions, but instead offer an opportunity for players to get the little things off their chests and minds without the possibility of their comments reaching the media or other teammates. Sometimes just talking about a problem or life in general is enough to ease the mind.

This Terrell Owens episode is a wakeup call to the sports world. It was a wakeup call that thankfully involved little permanent damage. Teams and sports leagues should act now to prevent future suicides and help alleviate depression and other mental and emotional problems by athletes. Athletes need to exercise their minds and emotions just as they would their bodies.