On April 24th, 2020 Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s older brother Jace Prescott committed suicide. This tragic news combined with the COVID-19 pandemic’s dreary social isolation propelled Prescott into a state of depression and sparked a national conversation about the normalization and stigmatization of mental health disorders. Since then, athletes across all leagues have united together to transform their own adversities with mental health into national action. 

Until recently, the term mental “toughness” was often used in place of mental health in the sports atmosphere. Athletes were expected to be resilient, rigid, unfazed, and show few signs of weakness. But now, pioneers such as Prescott are paving the way for a new, more empathetic national conversation to be had. 

After his own difficulties with depression, Prescott emphasizes how crucial it is to maintain one’s mental health and ask for help when needed. In an interview with USA Today, Prescott explains how the conversation surrounding mental health must be normalized in order to help the nation understand the prevalence of mental health struggles while also teaching a nation built on “toughness” to embrace vulnerability.

“Mental health leads to the health of everything else,” Prescott said. “Before I can lead, I have to make sure my mind is in the right place to do that and lead people to where they want to be. I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine, and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many you can inspire.”

Conversely, Fox Sports commentator Skip Bayless had a different stance. Bayless boisterously criticized Prescott as he viewed his open vulnerability surrounding his mental health difficulties as unbecoming of a leader and as a hindrance on the football field.

“I have deep compassion for clinical depression, but when it comes to the quarterback of an NFL team, you know this better than I do. It’s the ultimate leadership position in sports. You’re commanding a lot of young men and some older men. And they’re all looking to you to be their CEO, to be in charge of the football team. Because of all that, I don’t have sympathy for him. Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s team. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spots, and it definitely can encourage others on the other side to come after you.”

Ironically, Bayless’s comments starkly display the exact stigma that Prescott and other athletes are attempting to break down. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes a different stance than Bayless and instead applauds Prescott’s courage and bravery for his battle with depression and his openness to converse about it.

“Strength is taking care of yourself, taking care of your mind, understanding how important your thoughts are, and understanding how important positivity is,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s phenomenal in speaking out because that takes true courage and that’s true strength. That’s not a weakness at all. I applaud Dak. It’s a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people. We all have the same struggles and the same issues.”

Five-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star and UCLA Men’s Basketball alumni Kevin Love has also been a trailblazer for mental health awareness within the NBA. With a history of depression, Love has also endured intense anxiety throughout his life. One day, Love’s emotions became too overwhelming to handle and he experienced a panic attack on the court in a 2017 home game versus the Atlanta Hawks.

“I was having trouble catching my breath,” Love wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune the following March. “It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out.”

After this experience, Love came to one conclusion. His entire life had been dedicated to training his body for the high-stress scenarios of NBA play, but he had neglected the proper time and resources needed to care for his mind as well.

“It’s kind of strange when you think about it,” Love wrote. “In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers, and nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of those people could help me in the way I needed when I was lying on the floor struggling to breathe.”

The lack of attention and training that most Americans receive regarding mental health is why Love has recently helped launch a new company called Coa, the world’s first gym for mental health. It is a therapist-led, emotional fitness class platform that includes therapist matchmaking, group classes, and one-on-one therapy. The idea is to make mental health a proactive and daily practice, just like physical fitness. Love could not be more excited about this new company.

“Coa really aligns with everything I’m about,” Love said. “It’s a proactive approach to mental fitness. We’re creating a safe place to talk about these tough subjects around mental health and mental wellness, in a group setting. There is nothing like this out there. This has never existed before. It’s the first gym for mental health, which makes it super exciting to be a part of.”

Nationally, additional mental health awareness initiatives have been developed in this ongoing battle. Since 2010, the demand for sports psychologists has skyrocketed within NCAA institutions while athletes such as Dak Prescott and Hayden Hurst have created non-profit organizations dedicated to the matter. With it being clear that mental health issues will never fully disappear, these prominent athletes have served as inspirations to the millions of Americans who struggle with depression, anxiety, and more. They have sparked a national conversation and demonstrated the value in making yourself vulnerable while also working tirelessly to provide the resources necessary to improve people’s lives across the world.

According to Love, the more awareness and serious attention that mental health gets, the healthier and happier everybody can be. And since this is an unavoidable part of life, everybody needs to understand how and have the resources available to navigate it.

“We just have to keep chipping away at the stigma,” Love said. “We have to keep talking about it. You’re far less likely to detect it if you’re not talking about it if you’re living in the shadows. Everyone is going through something that we can’t see. The thing is, because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life.”