by Gavin Woods ’22
Providence College hosted a former NHL player and Stanley Cup winner, a former track and swimming star, and a four-time national championship winning middleweight boxer at the #SameHere Sit-Down event on Feb. 4. One common thread between these three incredible athletes is their participation in the We’re All a Little “Crazy” Foundation with the Global Mental Health Association.
The founder of this program is Eric Kussin, a former sports manager, who has previously worked with the Florida Panthers, the New Jersey Devils, and the Phoenix Suns. The primary focus of the We’re All A Little “Crazy” program is to expand public awareness about mental health, especially with respect to athletes. While the program is by no means limited to exploring mental health in athletes, it works specifically to breakdown the stigma around problems with mental health amongst athletes.
One of the main messages of the event is encouraging vulnerability. We’re All A Little “Crazy” emphasizes this message with the help of professional athletes. Each of the three guest speakers shared their stories and their own respective lessons from their life experiences.
The first guest speaker following Kussin’s introduction was Eric Kelly, once the top pound-for-pound boxer in the United States. Kelly’s stardom began at an incredibly early age. By 16-years-old, Kelly had already won his first Junior Olympic Boxing Championship. He then received a full scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan, to train at their U.S. Olympic Training Center. It was then that Kelly received the news that his father, who had been his primary caretaker for as long as he could remember, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. This was devastating to Kelly; due to his grueling workout and travel schedule, he could not be there by his father’s side.
Athletes have historically been private about the states of their mental health. Many athletes, especially those involved in contact sports, feel as though they are not allowed to show weakness. This was the case for Kelly. His father’s illness, mixed with his unrelenting workload, brought up many feelings. However, Kelly’s coaches and training staff did not encourage him to work on these issues that he was dealing with. Instead, they encouraged him to keep fighting. As a result, Kelly was forced to repress these emotions, which affected his mental health tremendously. Kelly soon found himself channeling these emotions into negative activities. He then lost his scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan, following his arrest for assault charges.
Looking back, Kelly deeply regrets not dealing with or even acknowledging his feelings. This is precisely what We’re All A Little “Crazy” is trying to remedy. It is their hope that by traveling the country and sharing so many professional athletes’ experiences, young athletes and people alike will feel more comfortable discussing the topic.
A similar lesson was learned when the second guest speaker, former New Jersey Devils star Jim Dowd, spoke briefly about his own experience. Stemming from his rather difficult childhood, including struggling with his parents’ divorce as well as being molested by his cousin, Dowd also had to repress his feelings. Throughout his entire professional career, Dowd was intent on never revealing to anybody what happened to him or expressing how it made him feel. However, repressing these feelings only came back to haunt Dowd, when last August he began experiencing thoughts of suicide. Now retired, Dowd finally saw a specialist and began communicating his feelings to his family and friends. Above all, Dowd stressed the importance of forgiveness.
The topic of anxiety was covered in Asheton Brown’s story. Before she became a successful track star and swimmer, Brown struggled with anxiety. The source of the problem dates back to her childhood, when Brown suffered physical abuse from her father, as well as being raped in her teenage years. These atrocities significantly impacted Brown, causing her to fear practically any human contact. She recalls that she would not give or receive hugs to anybody, family or otherwise. Her crippling anxiety constantly made Brown wonder, “What can I do to get off this hamster wheel?” Brown eventually saw improvement with her anxiety, as she became more confident in herself and in her relationships with others.
Much of the discussion involved the rhetoric used when speaking about mental health. Kussin called attention to the commonly used statistic by the media, “one in five people experience issues with their mental health.” Not only is this incorrect, as nearly all humans experience changes in their mental health, but it also encourages marginalization. For example, saying only one in five people experience issues with their mental health alienates the one in five who are experiencing it. Also, it creates a false sense of comfort for those who are not experiencing it yet.
The event ended with a Q&A session with Kussin and the athletes. Many insightful questions were shared from prior We’re All A Little “Crazy” events, including, “What is the best way a peer can help?” Kussin responded by saying, “The first step is the acknowledgment that what they’re going through is real. Because there’s so many of us who go through things, like depression and anxiety, but nobody can physically see it, a lot of people don’t understand. Acknowledging, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through something right now, but I’ve got your back and I believe in you,’ that’s one way you can be there for your friend.”