Darius Leonard was a 17 year old high school football player focused on his dream of making it to the NFL, when his closest brother was killed at 19 years old. The Indianapolis Colts linebacker says he went into a dark blur after his death, the toll affecting him not just mentallly, but physically. He lost weight, and dealt with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
"I struggled, I struggled for a long time and then I had to go to counseling", Leonard says. "I just feel like the more you talk about it the more free you can be."
Leonard says he turned to poetry to help him get through the tough times, relying on the strength of family and friends until he was strong enough to fight back on his own. "It's ok to not be ok", he reflects. "This thing we're going through, life, it's not perfect. There's so many times you're going to face so many obstacles and you're going to feel like the world is against you, but you gotta keep fighting. You gotta keep fighting and don't ever give up."
Now, he and other NFL players are sharing their stories as part of the Indianapolis Colts' effort to "Kick the Stigma". The initiative is focused on raising awareness about mental health disorders and removing the shame and stigma they say is too often associated with these illnesses, while raising money for nonprofits working in education, support, and advocacy of mental health.
'Kicking the stigma is our commitment to eradicating and getting this environment changed", says Colts owner Jim Irsay. "Kicking the stigma is our call to all our brothers and sisters to battle this thing. It is our reason to bring hope forward to change the environment, and the illness that lives around us will have no place to go if you have the boots on the ground, if you will, to attack the stigma and remove it so people can seek help and get well."
A Kicking the Stigma virtual fundraiser this Spring raised $4.5 million to distribute to Indiana-based nonprofits that either provide mental health treatment services, or raise awareness about mental health.
The Colts hosted a roundtable discussion to highlight the struggles and triumphs of NFL players who have battled mental health issues, moderated by TV host Carson Daly. Daly opened up about his own struggles with mental health, including a panic attack during a live show in the early 2000's. "I am one of the tens of millions of people who have suffered in silence with mental health", says Daly. "I didn't know it at the time, but I spent decades thinking I was broken, and I finally got some therapy."
Joining him for the roundtable discussion was Leonard, along with Las Vegas Raiders Defensive Tackle Solomon Thomas, Atlanta Falcons Tight End Hayden Hurst, and Raiders Tight End Darren Waller. "The biggest thing we can do is talk and be vulnerable", says Thomas. "That's when we connect with someone. We're all human, we're going to have ups and downs in life, but it's important to talk about it."
As the Colts work to choose which charities will benefit from their inaugural Kick the Stigma fundraiser, Thomas hopes the discussion it sparked will spur people struggling like he once was to seek help. "I know I'm not the only one, says Thomas. "Every time I tell my story I realize I'm not the only one who has gone through something like this." By opening up, he says, "you never know who else it's going to help."
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.