Head Injuries: Former NFL Players Discuss Mental Health Stigma

12/07/2010 08:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — WNBA superstar Chamique Holdsclaw once sat silently in her apartment with the blinds closed, refusing to answer telephone calls from the team.

"The team is calling me and I'm not answering the phone," Holdsclaw said during a panel discussion Monday on athletes and mental illness. "I'm just sitting in the dark, on the couch, eating some cereal."

Holdsclaw starred at the University of Tennessee and has been in the WNBA 11 seasons, now playing for the San Antonio Silver Stars. She was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression.

But even after being put on medication, she once overdosed on the pills and hallucinated about a cowboy chasing her with a lasso before calling a friend who rushed her to the hospital. Nowadays, Holdsclaw is open about what happened.

"There's a whole stigma about mental health," she said during the discussion arranged by the NFL.

The same is true for brain injuries such as concussions, with football players often considering such an admission a sign of weakness, athletes and mental health professional said during "NFL Community Huddle: Taking a Goal Line Stand For Your Mind & Body" at the University of Miami.

Monday was the seventh stop for the panel. It also included former NFL players Eric Hipple, Mark Kelso, an ex-U.S. surgeon general, and Sylvia Mackey, wife of former tight end John Mackey, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who many consider the greatest tight end ever.

John Mackey suffers Frontal Temporal Dementia. Sylvia's fight regarding her husband's condition resulted in "Plan 88," which provides financial assistance to deal with treatment of former players suffering from medical conditions.

What the seminar wants people to understand is these brain conditions – whether they're concussions resulting from football, dementia, or depression – should be discussed openly and be given more attention. And the stigmas associated with brain ailments should be dropped because they prevent people from seeking and receiving the care they need.

As for the concussions, defensive back Kelso didn't want to wear a special helmet designed to protect him from concussions because it looked "ridiculous." Now he admits that helmet allowed him to play another five years safely.

The NFL, NCAA, high schools and other levels of football are placing more of an emphasis on preventing concussions and making sure players recover from them. Former NFL linebacker Cornelius Bennett talked about their dangers and getting players to admit they have a concussion.

"We have to get rid of that stigma and also give guys time to heal up," he said.

The same goes for depression.

Hipple once jumped out of a moving car at 70 miles per hour after writing his wife a two-line note that said, "I Love You. I'm Sorry." Depression led him to the drastic action.

Three years later, Hipple's son, Jeff, showed similar symptoms but the elder Hipple did nothing.

"I said, 'We'll be OK. I wasyou'd think I'd know because I was there before."

Jeff Hipple, 15, committed suicide later that year. Since then Eric has become a crusader for suicide prevention.

"Make no mistake, stigma is everyone's problem, not just an athlete problem."