Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1: Foul Ball On Sports Stance Toward Mental Illness

By Sylvia Gurinsky

The very best wishes to former Florida Marlin Dontrelle Willis, now a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, as he battles anxiety disorder.

And some different wishes for many baseball fans and sportswriters who cover him and have asked questions about him: Stop treating Willis as if he has leprosy.

He joins an estimated 40 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, who are diagnosed with anxiety disorder. Most are diagnosed before they reach age 21. Willis is 27.

Major professional sports seem to have a perpetual problem dealing with athletes who struggle with mental illness. In baseball, people refer to a pitcher who can't find the plate as "having Steve Blass disease," a reference to the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes. It's an insult to Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster, who's about to celebrate his golden anniversary with that franchise.

It's been difficult for athletes in major sports to emerge from mental illness to become stars again, and it's easy to wonder whether the attitude they face in their locker rooms/clubhouses and in the press boxes is the reason why.

People like Sen. Thomas Eagleton, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, Kitty Dukakis, Tipper Gore and more have raised awareness of mental illness. It's time such awareness crossed the lines of sport.

No comments: