Two weeks ago, former NBA player Larry Sanders spoke out about his struggles with anxiety and depression and his exit from the league. While mental illness is quite common, it is rarely discussed. I hope Sanders' openness will make it easier for others -- particularly the young people he is a role model for -- to come forward and seek help when they need it.
We rarely speak about mental health, especially among children, even though millions of young adults experience the pain of a psychiatric disorder. This is changing, thanks to people like Sanders. And that's important, because of the costs of not talking. Ignored and untreated, early mental illness leaves children and adolescents at a higher risk for academic failure, school dropout, alcohol and substance abuse, entering the juvenile justice system and even suicide.
Often, it takes courage to speak up and reveal their struggles for young people to get the care they need. Sanders is a model for that bravery. In a video interview, he described his choice to leave basketball and address his mental health issues: "It's a scary thing to walk away from security, but I'm more afraid of living with the 'what if.'"
It may seem ridiculous to compare the concerns of a professional athlete with those of struggling young people, but the lesson is clear to me. By his example, Sanders is encouraging everyone to leave behind the security of silence and embrace that "what if." My hope is that as more athletes speak out -- Brandon Marshall is another great example -- more Americans will understand that these disorders are real and that we can talk about them. There is no shame in being open and seeking treatment.
Professional athletes are under a remarkable amount of pressure and are often forced to live their lives under a microscope, all of which can adversely affect their mental state. That also sounds a lot like adolescence. And Sanders' remarks on getting into the big leagues, feeling rudderless in a high-pressure situation, and self-medicating with marijuana may ring true for many young people. I hope that his decision to get help also gets across.
We all -- parents, teachers, sports teams -- need to understand that pressure, and send the message that it is okay to seek help. It doesn't matter how successful you are -- mental illness affects everyone and does not discriminate.
We still have a long way to go in addressing our collective discomfort in talking about mental health, but every time a professional athlete speaks openly about his struggles we get one step closer. I hope others will follow Larry Sanders' lead and speak up.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the founder and president of the Child Mind Institute, the only independent nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to transforming mental health care for children. For more on important issues in children's mental health, go to childmind.org, which offers a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.
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