Montee Ball, Simone Biles reignite the conversation about athletes and their mental health

MADISON, Wis.– Simone Biles stunned the world this week when the Olympic gymnast, often referred to as “The Greatest of All Time,” bowed out of the team and individual all-around competitions, citing her mental health. The move reignited conversations about athletes and their mental health, a topic former Badger football star Montee Ball has become vocal about, too.

Before Biles, there was Ball: an athlete seemingly at the top of his game, while silently, falling apart.

“People who smile in front of the cameras all the time can be the people who suffer in silence,” said Ball.

Many of Ball’s struggles quickly become public: addictions, arrests, appearances in court, and a stint in jail that eventually cut the running back’s professional career short.

But Ball and Biles are just two of the many athletes, among millions of Americans, who struggle with their mental health. One in five people lives with a mental health condition. The most common are anxiety and depression.

“I think Simone Biles highlights that under high pressure, if we don’t have ways to handle stress, we’re not going to do well,” explained UW Health psychologist Dr. Shilagh Mirgain.

Dr. Mirgain recommends finding a go-to mindfulness practice that works for you, like deep-breathing, reading, walking, or listening to music.

“Those things can really help when you’re feeling intense stress in the moment,” she said. “They can help reduce that stress, relieve you, and get you feeling back to your normal self.”

Mirgain says athletes like Ball and Biles have helped reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, but adds that there is still a long way to go. She reinforces the idea that seeking help for your health, whether mental or physical, is never a sign of weakness.

If you or someone you know would like to talk to a professional, Mirgain recommends calling your primary care doctor or connecting with UW Health’s Behavioral Health department. Click here for more information or to schedule an appointment.

You can also read more about Ball’s past struggles and ongoing journey with his mental health in his new book, Nowhere To Run: Discovering Your True Self in the Midst of an Addiction.

“People know my story and understand what I did,” said Ball. “It took me awhile to come out with the book. I wanted to make sure I took responsibility and presented it in a healthy and appropriate manner.”

Ball describes the book as a “tell-all,” in which the former Badger shares the lessons he’s learned throughout his athletic career from Camp Randall to the NFL, including how his “rock bottom” was the only place he could begin his new life… and how you can do the same.

“When you’re young and 18, you really don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into when you sign a letter of intent,” said Ball.

“Athletes are human. Athletes deal with a lot.”