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The Falcons’ Calvin Ridley and Eagles’ Lane Johnson have both taken time out to protect their mental well-being this season; Sky Sports’ Cameron Hogwood talks to Dr Nyaka NiiLampti, the NFL’s Vice President of Wellness and Clinical Services, about the league’s commitment to mental health
Last Updated: 30/12/21 5:34pm

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced in October he was stepping away from football to focus on his mental well-being
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced in October he was stepping away from football to focus on his mental well-being
The NFL is superseding toxic masculinity and emotion-repellent locker rooms of the past with a seat at the table for the human athlete, whose openness is testament to both individual bravery and the league’s shift towards era-defining attitudes.

Never has the sport, or sport as an entity, been in a more attentive, informed and hospitable space when it comes to the conversation surrounding mental health.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced earlier this season he was stepping away from football to focus on his mental well-being; Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson took a three-game mental health break amid his long-term battle with depression and anxiety; Tennessee Titans wide receiver AJ Brown admitted publicly that he had thought about taking his own life in November 2020.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay posted on social media that he was struggling with his mental health, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott revealed he received help for anxiety and depression during the offseason following the death of his brother Jace.

The discussions taking place now are discussions that may have never taken place a decade ago, Dr Nyaka NiiLampti, the NFL’s Vice President of Wellness and Clinical Services, describing the progress over the last five years as “astounding”.

“I think what we’re seeing with NFL players and elite athletes across sports really speaking out about prioritising mental health and speaking out about needing to take time to build their mental health, what we like to say in sport is it’s a microcosm of society,” Dr NiiLampti told Sky Sports in an exclusive interview.

“We’ve got more and more players who are coming in from universities where they had mental health resources in their athletic departments. Athletes are coming in with already some level of mental health literacy, just the generation, so I think we’re getting to see all of those pieces now and using their platform to say ‘yeah, just like we work on building our physical health we need to make sure we’re prioritising our mental health’.”

Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst has been at the forefront of the bid to snap the stigma after creating the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation in 2018 with a view to focusing on mental health and suicide prevention, while Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was one of multiple players to take part in an NFL-led video series during Mental Health Awareness Month as he spoke about his own battle with depression following his sister’s death by suicide.

Players are talking, and the league is eager to listen.

“Change is really driven from the people who are saying ‘hey something needs to change’, and so in some ways I see it as the recognition of this need to shift to make this change because the players are driving it and responding to that,” said Dr NiiLampti.

“It’s the ‘okay we see the need’, players have been very clear in saying ‘this is important to us’ and then trying to figure out how do we now create an environment or culture that can be responsive to that?”

A team-mate in need of support might have suffered in silence in often blamelessly-unconscious environments of the past; the value in protecting mental well-being is not a new narrative, but one that many, perhaps by no fault of their own, are only now in the early stages of recognising and understanding.

Equally, it is the sports media’s responsibility to learn and recognise when to refrain from seeking constant updates on the status of a player such as Ridley during press conferences. Just as it is the sports media’s responsibility to learn from the case of Naomi Osaka in regards to how they treat and communicate with athletes.

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