Drew Robinson’s Story Shines a Light on the Need to Erase the Stigma Around Mental Illness Once and For All
By Ken Reed
We have a mental health crisis in this country and it’s crying out for more attention.
Lives are lost to suicide. Depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness negatively affect entire families, not just the individual suffering. The nation’s productivity is impacted to a significant degree due to mental health issues.
And yet there’s still a public stigma associated with mental illness.
Approximately 46 million people are living with mental illness in the United States today. On college campuses, 33% of all college students suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions to varying degrees. Among youth in the United States, 9.7% have severe depression (up from 9.2% in last year’s study). The percentage of adults in the U.S. experiencing serious thoughts of suicide increased by 460,000 from last year.
One area, in particular, that needs more attention when it comes to mental health is sports. Among professional athletes, up to 35% suffer from a mental health issue, which may manifest as depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or burnout. Rarely due they seek help. Of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% seek help (vs. 30% of college students as a whole who seek help).
I’ve shared these statistics to set the stage for an incredible sports story. Drew Robinson, a veteran Major Leaguer who lost his right eye in a suicide attempt last year, not only survived that attempt but is on the precipice of returning to the Major Leagues. It was announced this past week that Robinson had made the opening day roster for the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A team in Sacramento.
Before his suicide attempt, Robinson was like a lot of athletes. He thought that because he was an athlete, he had to be tough – physically and mentally – and not show any weakness. Sharing any doubts or fears with another human being was out of the question in his mind. He was a master at keeping things to himself. To his friends and family, he was the fun, wise-cracking, good-natured life of the party.
They were shocked when they found out that on April 16, 2020, Robinson tried to kill himself by shooting a bullet into his right temple. Somehow, he didn’t die. While bleeding and with his right eye shut, he groggily looked around and thought What happened? Why am I still here? He spent the next 20 hours trying to decide whether to attempt to kill himself again or dial 911 for help. After a spark of inspiration, he chose to live and dialed for help.
When talking to his brother Chad on the phone while in the hospital after the suicide attempt, Drew kept repeating, “I’m meant to be alive, Chad. I’m meant to be alive. I’m meant to be alive.”
Robinson endured four surgeries to repair the damage the bullet had caused, including one to remove what was left of his right eye. Drew was determined that his “after “was going to be better than his” before.” He suddenly felt driven by love, not hate. His new purpose was to help people avoid the pit of despair that he had fallen into.
Drew’s primary message today is, if you’re hurting talk to someone. Anyone. It doesn’t have to be a family member, a friend, or even a therapist. But find someone you can be open with. Drew discovered people want to help, and are actually drawn to vulnerability, not repelled by it.
Robinson is now convinced that vulnerability is a strength.
“So many people in this world are willing to help anyone going through these things,” says Robinson.
“You’re never alone. I never will hold back from asking or telling someone, even if it’s something simple. ‘Hey, this little thing’s annoying me today.’ Just tell them. They want to hear it.”
One day, during his recovery, Robinson decided he wanted to play baseball again. He started working out like a fiend. Weights, cardio, batting practice. Robinson’s a left-handed hitter and despite missing his lead eye, he discovered that he still had depth perception and could pick up breaking balls.
The Giants offered him a minor league spring training spot. No guarantees. No promises. After a good camp, he was told that he’d made Sacramento’s roster.
Robinson’s not out of the woods yet. He still has some down days. But he’s discovered that being vulnerable and talking to people about it will prevent him from going to a dark place. He regularly sees a therapist. He’s on an antidepressant, meditates and writes in a journal on a daily basis. And he’s sharing his story as widely as he can.
“I’m stronger than what I thought I was,” says Robinson. And he wants people to know that they too can be stronger than they thought if they will just take the first step and reach out for help.
It’s a message that needs to be shared over and over again, especially in SportsWorld, where stigma is cited as the main reason athletes with mental health issues don’t seek the help they need.
That’s a stigma that needs to be completely erased.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
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“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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