It’s a strange dichotomy. Endless chatter about sporting minutiae is common, while serious discussion on mental illness remains rare. But inject sports into the mental health conversation, and you find a plethora of Outside the Lines reports, peer-reviewed studies on sport-induced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and arguments about the respective mental fortitude of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even when we talk about mental illness in art, as in the Oscar-nominated movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” the main characters are Philadelphia Eagles fans. Indeed, it seems mental health only interests our society when it relates to sports.
Though our collective hyperfocus on sports may seem like an obstacle to meaningful dialogue on mental illness, it may also be a solution. Perhaps the way to bring mental health into the national consciousness is to frame therapeutic services in a sporting context. A sport-based approach to therapy might reduce the stigma of treatment and promote the normalization of open discourse on mental health.
The present reality of mental illness is a grave one. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans live with some form of mental illness, but a lack of state and federal funding limits the capacity for adequate care. Indeed, of the 30 million Americans who require mental health care but do not receive it, 45 percent cite cost as a barrier to care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. To some degree, the lack of public discourse on the topic explains the inadequate allocation of resources for mental health treatment. If no one is talking about mental health care, why spend money on it?
The answer is that it’s simply a good investment. It’s in our economic interest to ensure that the mentally ill receive the treatment they need. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that the US loses over $193 billion in lost wages as a result of mental illness. In addition, a study by the Lancet Psychiatry published in the New York Times found that every dollar invested in mental health treatment returned $3 to $5 in recovered economic benefits. But in order to encourage further investment in mental health care and to derive the associated economic gains, we must first foster mainstream discussion on mental illness.
Academic studies and traditional mental health initiatives further our understanding of mental illness and offer key information to those in need of services. The problem is that these two media are generally only consumed by those who seek them out: other academics and the mentally ill and their families.
However, because of the significant stigma surrounding mental health, many afflicted people hide their illnesses. Unfortunately, when the mentally ill hide their ailments, it results in a lower level of public awareness, which leads to insufficient funding. This has proved to be a tough nut to crack for mental health advocates: How can we decrease the public stigma of mental illness when the vast majority of people who pay attention to our work already support our cause?
Enter our culture’s obsession with sports. Sport has permeated nearly every aspect of our society in a way that no other topic has. President Obama makes March Madness picks every year, rap lyrics frequently reference football and basketball, and some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities initially rose to fame as athletes. Given its broad reach, the push to make mental health a mainstream issue ought to use sport as a vehicle.
To do this, we must support sport-based therapy as a viable alternative to traditional one-on-one psychotherapy. My agency, Doc Wayne Youth Services, provides this unique brand of therapy to heal and strengthen at-risk youth. Our most popular program, called Chalk Talk, employs a sport-based group therapy model to treat kids aged 5-18 struggling with trauma or a variety of mental health challenges. Our unique curriculum uses sport-based language to simultaneously teach athletic and therapeutic skills. An independent study by Wendy D’Andrea, Ph.D., found that for less than half the cost, Chalk Talk’s model provided the same therapeutic effect as traditional psychotherapy.
A program like this may or may not work for adults. It’s certainly worth a try; most adults I know would rather play a sport for an hour than participate in traditional therapy. Because of sport’s mainstream appeal, youth (and probably adults) often respond better to sport-based therapy. In addition, the lower costs associated with sport-based group therapy help solve the access to care problem that lower-income families face.
By making therapeutic services available to more people in need of mental health services, sport-based therapy may be primed to make a significant dent in the stigma surrounding mental illness. If individuals receive treatment through athletic activity, then a degree of the associated negativity may disappear because of the pervasiveness of sport in our society. In essence, if we accept sport in so many other facets of our public and private lives, we’re likely to accept sport as a means for mental health care. Furthermore, treatment in an active group setting would give the mentally ill a built-in support team of fellow individuals facing similar health challenges.
Of course, it would take time to set up such programs. Yet framing mental health issues in a sporting context may be the most effective and sustainable way to ensure meaningful progress. It’s an unconventional path, but it may be an essential one if we are to erase or ease the stigma of mental illness, help our neighbors get the treatment that they deserve and reap the societal benefits of adequate mental health care. We hear about the power of sport so often, it’s time to truly test its strength.