MLB is Striking Out Stigma Around Mental Health

Red Sox newcomers Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval will make their home-field debuts this week as beloved Fenway Park opens for the first time in 2015. The two All-Stars, however, will not be the only important additions to the team this season. In an effort to provide more resources and support for its players, the Boston Red Sox recently launched a new department of behavioral health.  

The behavioral health team for the Sox consists of the co-director of the PACES Institute of Sports Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and three mental skills coaches who will work with players on the organization’s major and minor league teams.

The Red Sox are part of a larger developing trend in Major League Baseball to address mental health and wellness as a priority for teams.  The Washington Nationals recently hired former struggling-pitcher-turned-star-outfielder Rick Ankiel as a mental skills coach to work with minor league players in their adjustment to professional baseball. The Chicago Cubs have a similar program as well.

In taking such a proactive approach toward behavioral health, the Red Sox, Nationals and Cubs are reframing the meaning of mental toughness in a sport that epitomizes strength of mind and body as a recipe for success. Players are more comfortable discussing their trepidations in a welcoming environment, among people who can empathize with the wear and tear they experience through the 162-game season. Therefore, anxiety, distress or mental illness no longer needs to carry the same associations of weakness as it once did in the sport.

Professional baseball players are becoming more comfortable articulating their experiences with mental wellness to the public as well. San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, whose legendary postseason performance earned him the 2014 World Series MVP, revealed to Sports Illustrated that he almost quit baseball as an 18 year-old in the Giants farm system who had never been far away from home for so long. It was the first time he ever told anybody besides his circle of family and friends. Former big leaguer Adrian Cárdenas did leave the game early, after realizing that he was unhappy after his rookie season. “Building an organization where a player feels comfortable talking about such topics is the best way to help promote a healthy environment, and one that is conducive to winning,” he writes in The New Yorker. “Baseball is a mentally taxing game, and even though players are tough, they are also human.”

By choosing to share their stories publicly, current and former players like Bumgarner and Cárdenas are using their platforms to reduce stigma that surrounds issues relating to mental health.  Such openness transcends the baseball diamond and informs our cultural awareness of mental illness, helping people address their own concerns in the process. I’m proud to see our hometown favorites leading the way in embracing the importance of behavioral health, and hopefully it will prompt more teams to do the same.    

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