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Athletes Need to Know It’s Okay to Ask for Help
Olympic and Paralympic athletes are human. They’re not invincible people. They experience real depression and overwhelming challenges despite the successes you may see on TV. Behind the scenes, there’s often a lot going on.
I’ve written very openly about my personal experiences with suicide. I’ve had dark moments in my life when I wanted to end it. I wrote about these experiences in my book and I’m quite comfortable speaking openly about them on stage.
My openness about suicide means many people confide in me because they think “I get it.”
Recently, a fellow athlete told me about their suicidal thoughts and it reminded me of something important I want to share with you today: The “I got this” mentality common among athletes and competitors can get in the way of asking for help. And if you’re suicidal, the most important thing you can do is talk to someone right away. Realistically, if you’ve attempted suicide, you don’t “got this.”
About a year ago, I was at an event when another athlete came up to me and said, “Hey, Kev, can we talk?” I knew it was serious because this athlete has always shown so much strength in their sport. I looked up to them both on and off the field, and I know many of my peers looked up to them as well. In other words, they were the epitome of a fierce competitor.
We sat down to talk and the first words I remember hearing were: “I tried killing myself last week.”
“What? Why? How?” I asked.
“I tried hanging myself in my garage, and when I was hanging there, all I could do was think about my family, so I got myself down.”
“What’s been going on?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t find happiness in anything anymore. I can’t figure it out.”
I was shocked. I never thought I’d hear these words from my friend.
“Have you talked to anyone else about this?” I asked.
Nobody knows you’re suffering unless you say so.
“Yes. My doctor knows what’s going on, but I still can’t figure it out. I don’t know what to do.”
“We need to get you help,” I said.
And here’s the punchline: “No, I’ve got this,” they responded.
I was incredulous. Didn’t you just say you tried hanging yourself last week?
I said to my friend, “No, you don’t ‘got this.’ If you did, you wouldn’t have done what you did, and you wouldn’t be speaking to me about this right now.”
It was a surreal moment, and it was clear to me that we needed to get my friend some help.
For the sake of privacy, and so as not to risk divulging any further information, I need to end the sports side of the story here. My friend did receive support, and they eventually started taking antidepressants. To date, they have not inflicted any more harm on themselves, and they are living a much happier, healthier, and steadier life.
I’m sharing this story because I want you to know how important it is to acknowledge when you’re suffering, as soon as you know something is wrong. Don’t wait until you get to the point where you start harming yourself.
I also want to highlight that being physically strong doesn’t always translate into being mentally strong. As Michael Landsberg would say, you are “sick, not weak.”
It can feel embarrassing asking for help, but I can tell you that the sooner you ask for help, the sooner you will be on your way to recovery. Nobody knows you’re suffering unless you say so, and if you had things “under control,” you wouldn’t be feeling this way.
Being mentally strong means having the courage to ask for help.
Being mentally strong means being vulnerable.
Being mentally strong means admitting that you have a problem and looking for support outside yourself, despite how tough you may be on the outside or how tough people think you are.
Athlete or not, you are human.
If you’re suffering in silence, please ask for help.
Call the suicide hotline. I’ve called them twice and the line is run by pretty cool people. They’re very good at listening with zero judgment. The crisis hotline in Canada is 833-456-4566 and in the U.S. it’s 800-273-8255.
Speak to your coach. Speak to your best friend. Speak to that stranger who might “get you.” Speak to someone because you may not know it, but they might be suffering too.
If you’re willing to ask for help, I can promise you’ll get through this.