The importance of athletes sharing their mental health stories

The great basketball writer Jackie MacMullan recently stood at the front of a hotel ballroom in Tampa taking questions after collecting a career achievement award from the Association for Women in Sports Media.

I was in the audience that day. Initially, the questions focused on her early days in basketball as a reporter. But then someone brought up a series of stories MacMullan had written for ESPN last summer on NBA players’ mental health problems. MacMullan called it “probably the most important thing I’ve ever done,” and a nearly 10-minute discussion followed.

The package featured All-Stars Kevin Love and Paul Pierce, among others, discussing their struggles with depression and anxiety. Other big names backed out at the last minute, concerned about the stigma of mental illness and whether it might hurt their ability to land a good contract in free agency, a point MacMullan emphasized when we spoke after the session ended. She said a league source called the problem “rampant.”

It’s not just the NBA where athletes’ struggles with mental health are under scrutiny, either. As the director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, I’ve noticed that mental health and sports is a topic gaining attention among athletes and the journalists who cover them.

Wanting to explore why it’s happening now and why it matters, I talked to some experts in the field.


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Listing every publicly known example of an athlete dealing with a mental health issue would be a tough task, but it’s clear that neither the particular sport nor an athlete’s gender makes someone immune.

Michael Phelps—a swimmer with more medals than anyone in Olympic history—has spoken candidly for years about his struggles with depression. Longtime NFL receiver Brandon Marshall has gone public with his mental health issues, as has 2012 Olympic silver medalist in high jump Brigetta Barrett. Fox Sports has written about the frequency of eating disorders among female college athletes.

Experts I spoke with for this story pointed to a couple of reasons professional athletes are particularly susceptible to mental health issues.

Many “are high-achieving perfectionists,” said David Yukelson, the retired director of sports psychology services for Penn State Athletics and a past president of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.

That’s great when it all comes together in victory or a terrific performance, but the toll of perfectionism can be tough when the results don’t match an athlete’s own expectations, Yukelson said.

The visibility of today’s elite athletes exacerbates the pressure.

Scott Goldman, president-elect of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, told me it’s hard for fans to understand what it’s like to constantly be in the spotlight. He recalled watching a pro football player prepare to run onto the field and wonder aloud whether anyone else in the building had people howling at them when they went to work.

Add social media to the mix and all the armchair experts that brings to any sports discussion. Earlier this year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: “We are living in a time of anxiety. I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

The NBA has responded to the problem with a series of initiatives designed to help players cultivate mental wellness. Beyond compassion, the efforts make business sense: Happier players lead to better-performing players, which leads to more wins.

Attention to mental health issues in sports also seems to be on the uptick in the United Kingdom, said Professor Matthew Smith, a historian at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Smith, whose research focuses on medicine and mental health, has been tracking sports-mental health articles on the BBC for the past couple of years and noted the count recently topped 100 stories.

He highlighted the suicide of Wales national men’s soccer team manager Gary Speed in 2011 as a watershed moment that catalyzed the country’s awareness and that still makes headlines.

Fast forward to this May, when England’s Football Association revealed a campaign to show that “mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness,” with Prince William making the public announcement.

Back in the United States, some wonder whether athletes are opening up about mental health issues because rates of such problems are rising among young adults, or if it’s simply become more acceptable to talk about the issue.

Yukelson said times certainly have changed from the 20th century, when athletes were expected to absorb every setback and insult on their own. There’s more support now. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology, a group for sport psychology consultants and professionals who work with athletes, coaches, and non-sport performers, was founded only in 1985. It now has 2,200 members worldwide, according to Emily Schoenbaechler, the group’s certification and communications manager.

Goldman, meanwhile, compared the situation to not knowing you have a cockroach problem until you turn on a light. In other words, drawing attention to an issue makes more people aware it exists.

But it’s also true that nearly one in five American adults has a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s more than 46 million people.

Both Goldman and Yukelson noted that only good things can come from athletes opening up about the issue. The more athletes talk, the more fans might feel inspired to seek help on their own.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists talking openly about mental health as the first way to reduce stigma. And an early advocate for speaking out about players’ mental health, Metta World Peace—who changed his name from Ron Artest in 2011—notes that when he first talked about his struggles, the media thought he was “crazy.” Now the default is to call for getting the athlete some help, he says.

It all points to changing attitudes in sports—and society.

Or as Phelps put it in a recent tweet, “getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
— Read on

Amare Research Q&A (Audio)

Here is the recoding of a call I did recently where I answered several questions from a very knowledgable physician (Laurel) about microbiome, gut-brain-axis, and Amare product/ingredient research.

Please take a listen and let me know if you have any questions of your own?

Amare Science/Product Overview – July 2, 2019

Here is the video from my Amare Science/Product Overview last night (July 2, 2019) – it runs about 45min – at which point the video freezes because we had a massive power surge and lost all power – but I was able to cover all the important stuff about how restoring microbiome balance and optimizing gut-brain-axis signaling can dramatically improve mental wellness and enhance mental fitness. Please check it out and let me know what you think?

Gut microbiota may contribute to autism symptoms

Read the original article HERE

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involves a group of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by impairments in social interactions and behavior. It is also accompanied by gastrointestinal dysfunction. According to World Health Organization, one child in 160 worldwide has ASD, which tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood.

Beyond genes, environmental factors have been suggested to play a role in the onset of ASD. For example, the gut microbiota differs between children with ASD—especially those with recurrent gastrointestinal problems—and typically developing controls. However, these previous associations do not tell us whether a gut bacteria imbalance is responsible for autism symptoms or is a consequence of having the condition.

A new study, led by Dr. Sarkis K. Mazmanian from the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, USA), provides the first evidence of gut bacteria’s direct contribution to autism-like behaviors in mice.

In order to explore gut microbiota’s role in autism-like behavior, the researchers transferred gut microorganisms from male children with ASD (mild-ASD and ASD donors) and children without ASD into germ-free wild type mice via fecal transplantation. Mice colonized with the same gut microbiomes were mated and their offspring mice were behavior-tested (6 to 9 weeks of age) and sampled (feces, serum and brains). The mice that inherited the gut microbiome from children with ASD showed autism-like behaviors, including spending less time interacting with other mice, increased repetitive behaviors, and decreased locomotion.

Different gut microbiota profiles in ASD and control donors were maintained in recipient mice and their offspring. Specifically, Bacteroides and Parabacteroides were decreased in the offspring ASD mice, whereas Lachnospiraceae was increased. Besides this, these bacterial taxa showed correlations with repetitive and social behaviors in male mice. These findings support the contribution of specific gut bacteria to autism-like symptoms.

In addition to the observed behavioral differences, the researchers dissected the mouse brains and found that ASD-colonized mice showed differences in the way 52 autism-related genes are processed before being translated into proteins (called alternative splicing) in the brain.

Furthermore, 37 metabolites in the colonic contents and 21 serum metabolites in offspring ASD mice were differentially abundant, compared with offspring colonized from the gut microbiota of children without autism. The content of the mouse gut colonized by the gut microbiome from children with autism had a reduced level of 5-aminovaleric acid (5AV) and taurine metabolites, which are agonists of inhibitory GABA receptors. These results show that taurine and 5AV production in offspring ASD mice is deficient. This concurs with the theory that explains autism as an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory signals in the brain.

Levels of other metabolites such as 3-aminoisobutyric acid and soy-derived isoflavones genistein and daidzein increased. In contrast, the gut microbiota from offspring controls preferentially metabolized proline, taurine, glutamate and glutamine dietary amino acids.

Sharon and colleagues also found that oral administration of 5AV or taurine to mice that naturally exhibit autism-like behaviors, during the prenatal and weaning periods, increased social interactions and led to less repetitive behaviors, which were accompanied by decreased neural excitability in brain samples. The role of microbial metabolites-based interventions (or ‘post-biotic’ interventions) has been previously shown in another context for ameliorating excessive secondary weight gain.

Based on the link between gut microbiome and autism-like behaviors, in a previous open-label clinical trial, researchers from Arizona State University (USA) observed a significant improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms and autism-related symptoms after administration of a 10-week microbiota transfer therapy that combined oral vancomycin treatment, a bowel cleanse, a stomach-acid suppressant, and a fecal microbiota transplant from healthy donors. Both gastrointestinal and behavioral ASD symptoms remained improved 8 weeks after treatment ended, together with a shift in the gut microbiota to resemble that of the neurotypical control children.

A follow-up study with the same 18 ASD-diagnosed children, two years after treatment was completed, provides evidence that microbiota transfer therapy could be a potentially effective and safe way of improving autism symptoms and related gastrointestinal symptoms. Such improvements were accompanied by an increase in bacterial diversity and relative abundances of Bifidobacteria and Prevotella when compared with the baseline.

Altogether, these findings do not prove that gut bacteria can cause autism, but they do support the direct contribution of the host gut microbiome in shaping repetitive and social behavioral abnormalities related to autism in mice. The administration of specific metabolites was able to improve autism-like behaviors in mice and, together with the benefits of microbiota transfer therapy in improving both autism and gastrointestinal symptoms, suggest that targeting the gut ecosystem might be a potential way of keeping some hallmark features of autism at bay.


Sharon G, Jamie Cruz N, Kang DW, et al. Human gut microbiota from autism spectrum disorder promote behavioral symptoms in mice. Cell. 2019; 177:1600-18. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.05.004.