Changing the way people view mental health

By telling his story, former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf hopes to remove the stigma surrounding mental health

Sharing his story at a Penn Foundation event on September 24, former NFL quarterback, Ryan Leaf talked about how his career ended and shared his views on the stigma around mental health.
A quarterback who was once drafted second overall at 22 years old in the 1998 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers only behind Peyton Manning had a football career that only four seasons that ended when he was only 25 years old.
Due to his behavior on and off the field and his behavior was caused by having the feeling that he was “a god.”
“When you live in small towns and we’re football is an institution. You get placed on a pedestal and people tell you how great you are and guess what? You mess up sometimes and consequences aren’t as dear as they are for other people,” Ryan Leaf said.
While playing college football, he started to develop mental disorders because of the pressure of being on a pedestal, he felt like he could not ask anyone for help.
“I was dealing with mental health issues it served to me as a social anxiety disease and a narcissistic personality disorder,” Leaf said
According to Leaf, there is a stigma that athletes feel when they try to ask for help because they are supposed to be the greatest player that should not need any help.
“Just because you’re a great athlete that doesn’t make you a good person I think we’re kind of dumbfounded sometimes when we hear our favorite athletes messing up or misbehaving or acting it out, were like how is that possible? You’re such a good football player,” Leaf said
For Leaf, the feeling of being a god started to develop while he was playing college football.
“You play well on a Friday night. A lot of times your behavior kind of gets overlooked and so that, that develops kind of that God complex,” Leaf said.
According to Leaf, there was a joke that ran in Sports Illustrated that was “What’s the difference between God and Ryan Leaf?” And the joke was “God doesn’t think he’s Ryan Leaf.”
According to Leaf, because he felt like a god he felt even more stigma in asking people
for help and this stigma has been created through out our lives.
“You don’t see the most popular kids at your at school or the valedictorian ever stand up in a room full of his or her peers and go I’m really struggling here, can you guys help me? We don’t see it. Therefore the stigma has been built and built and built until we believe it,” Leaf said.
This stigma is the reason why people do not get the help that they need.
“The thought that someone might know you need help is worse than not getting the help that you need that’s the exact definition of stigma,” Leaf said.
According to Leaf, it was because of this stigma that he felt like he could never go and ask someone for help and that ended his career in the NFL.
“Instead of walking into [former Seattle Seahawks head coach] Mike Holmgren’s office in Seattle and saying, ‘Coach, I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. I feel sad all the time. I feel lazy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Help me,’ Instead of doing that I walked into his office and just said, ‘I quit,’” Leaf said.
It’s because of this that he wants people to start helping other people when they are struggling and not to let that stigma get in the way.
Leaf would realize this later in his life, when he was in prison his fellow inmate convinced him to help other inmates learn to read.
“I walk into this room and in a place where you’re supposed to show zero vulnerability, there are these men, 50 years old, who look me in the eye and say, ‘Ryan, I can’t read, man. Can you help me? Can you help me with this?’ And I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t know if I’ve ever in my lifetime heard another man look at me and say, ‘I need help. Can you help me?’” Leaf said.
According to Leaf, it was because of this that his vision started to “shape” while he was in prison.
“I went in there and I started to help. and I woke up the next day and I went back and I went back and I went back before I knew it a week, two weeks, three weeks have past and I was sleeping better, I was more personable, I was talking about my family,” Leaf said.
The reason for this was because he started to help someone for the first time, defying the stigma that he would usually feel.
“What I realized what was happening was, I was actually being of service to another human being for the first time in my life,” Leaf said.
It’s because of this that he wants people to start helping other people when they are struggling and not to let stigma get in the way.
“I defy you to be of service to another human being today and not have your most peaceful nights sleep,” Leaf said.