Detroit — Talking about mental health can be difficult.
Former local sports stars Calvin Johnson, Darren McCarty, Braylon Edwards and Andre Rison — among a slew of Detroit athletes at The Eastern in Detroit on Thursday night — don’t want it to be.
Dozens of local athletes and health experts gathered for the inaugural “Walk & Talk of Detroit,” a charitable event hosted by Hall of Fame Health, Fund Recovery and Caring Ways to promote mental health and addiction, as well as behavioral health treatment.
Hall of Fame Health, an affiliate of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, aims to provide behavioral health to former soccer players. Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021 after a career spanning nine seasons with the Lions (2007-2015) and has spoken frequently about mental and behavioral health.
“You have a high visibility of professional athletes, so it’s really inherent in us to use that platform to spread awareness and educate where we can,” Johnson said.
“The focus is on figuring out the science of neuroplasticity, and that’s just the science based on the brain’s ability to change. If you can imagine being in the weight room lifting weights, you can your brain does the same.You have the same kind of gain, mentally.
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“Being able to create solutions, that’s what I’m here for.”
Funds raised from the event benefit Detroit recovery centers, including event sponsor Skywood Recovery, and the Hall of Fame Recovery Fund.
Johnson said that while the stigma surrounding the mental health conversation has improved over the years, there is still some way to go.
“People are afraid of retaliation at work, people may not understand what’s going on with themselves,” Johnson said. “It is really just information for both the entrepreneurs and the business people who employ (people), and actually everyone.
“Family members – understand the different kinds of mental challenges people face. It’s everywhere. It’s in everyone’s family.”
Johnson spoke on a panel along with McCarty, Rison, Edwards and Letha Atwater, wife of former Denver Bronco Steve Atwater.
Edwards has worked closely with Sean Jordan and The Sports Marketing Agency since 2018 to bring these types of conversations to local high schools.
Part of breaking the stigma, Edwards said, is recognizing when someone needs help and lending a helping hand. He recalls having an unnamed teammate who the team joked was “a little crazy,” only for the teammate to be arrested shortly after retiring from the competition.
“I was able to look back… and say, ‘He was suffering. He was screaming for help.’ But I didn’t know how to help him when I was 24, 22, 23, 27,” Edwards said. “To be able to know that conversation now, to have that ability to help … it’s like, ‘I need to do more and more.
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“When you start doing it, when you start helping kids, you also notice that individuals — whether it’s addiction protocol, or mental health — they’re responding to athletes. They’re responding to entertainers.
“So I said, you know what? I am lockstep.”
Some current Lions are getting an edge in recognizing the mental health situations athletes face. Newly acquired wide receiver DJ Chark and defensive lineman Jashon Cornell were also in attendance.
In 2021, Cornell was banned for three games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Cornell was convicted of a felony for driving with a disability in Minnesota.
“What people don’t understand is that as athletes we are all put on this pedestal,” Cornell said at the event on Thursday. “When you have all those cameras and stuff around you, you try to be yourself, but at the same time, there’s a lot going on and people don’t understand.
“Sometimes you have family problems or problems with work or problems at home, and then, the mental health aspect of it… you sometimes have it under control and sometimes you don’t.”
Former Lions quarterback Eric Hipple spoke on the earlier panel at the event. Hipple abused drugs and alcohol and was convicted of drink driving after his son died by suicide in 2000. Hipple said men and athletes in general have a hard time coping with mental health problems for fear of looking weak.
“I think, first of all, men in general… we’re ‘fix-it’ people. If something’s broken, it’s ‘Oh, I’ll fix it,’ and we don’t know how to talk about it,” Hipple said.
McCarty, who was open to various bouts of alcohol abuse both during and after his 15-year NHL career, said the biggest step to making people feel like they’re not being judged is the biggest step to seeing positive change.
“I think if people are confident that they won’t be judged, the numbers will get more real,” McCarty said.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.
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