Sport has long been a place where activism has thrived, with athletes spurring action on some of the biggest social and political issues of their time. One of the areas where athletes are increasingly speaking up – to de-stigmatise, normalise conversations and inspire change – is mental health.
Brian Dawkins, NFL Hall of Famer and Founder of the Brian Dawkins Impact Foundation (BDIF), is very open about his own journey in the hopes that it will help others. Early on in his legendary career with the Philadelphia Eagles, he struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. His coach and his wife pushed him to get professional help, ultimately helping to save his life.
“I had some really down moments as I was trying to find my way as a rookie, a player and as a person. The pressures of life, of being a newlywed, a new father and all of a sudden having money overwhelmed me. I was young and being pulled in many different directions. Growing up in the type of neighborhood I did in Jacksonville, Florida, I had always kept the pain inside, not knowing how to express myself or my anger constructively, which ultimately led me to thoughts of suicide. It hit me deep and strong and I went into a tailspin.
I got professional and personal help, deepened my faith and gained the ability to open up. But going through that led me to a better version of myself and gave me something I could share with others. Coming out of my low time, I learned that you can always find light even in the darkest of places.
That mentality and knowledge is something I constantly want to bring to other people – to help foster personal strength and development. Those things that are hurting so deeply are actually teaching you something powerful. I learned how far having a certain mentality will get you in life, how to push through the pain and persevere. To be something, to find my faith and to have success, especially in the NFL, was a game changer. I think you can plug that mentality, that sport toughness, into any type of life.”
Dawkins credits the reaction to his 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, where he spoke about his experiences, as the catalyst for his Foundation. BDIF, a thinkBeyond client – was created in 2019 with the mission to provide inspiration and resources to youth, families and communities in need. Leveraging the values and knowledge Dawkins gained over his lifetime, the US nonprofit is focused on helping disadvantaged young people, while also promoting spiritual, cerebral and physical wellness.
“To be able to impact others’ lives using the knowledge, values and experiences I gained through sport and life is important to me. With the greatest thing being hope; hope is such a powerful tool and so many kids and communities never get it.”
Currently, young people aged 11-17 are reported to be more likely than any other age group to show symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety and depression. Of those, over half reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm. This is especially troubling as 60% of youth with depression do not receive any mental health treatment.
In 2020, with the world facing the simultaneous occurrences of the COVID-19 pandemic and global movements for social justice, he decided that the Foundation’s first project would support young people’s mental health and well-being (an area he terms ‘cerebral wellness.’)
In collaboration with social impact education innovator, EVERFI, Dawkins launched ‘Owning Your Cerebral Wellness’, a free interactive digital course for students. Using a public health approach, and with personal messages for students taped by Dawkins, the successful program initially rolled out in schools in Jacksonville and earlier this year expanded to Philadelphia.
“In the community I grew up in, there’s a lot of stigma behind mental health. You don’t talk about your feelings, you rub dirt on it – especially as a young man. How do you deal with those emotions? I didn’t know. We aren’t taught those things, we aren’t given the solutions, we aren’t given ‘it’s okay to feel this way.’
I began to develop things for myself to help me go through any and all of life’s ups and downs, to reframe how the past has happened to me and what’s happening for me now…It’s about understanding what you can do wherever you find yourself. There’s always something you can do, and if there’s not, there’s always someone you can talk to.
The person that you should work the hardest for is you… I only have control over my AREA: my attitude, my response, my efforts and my actions. We can grow through anything that comes our way. I don’t care what it is.”
Recently, in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, Dawkins virtually engaged with students and teachers from four of the high schools enrolled in the course. Covering everything from the power of asking for help, to the benefits of exercise on mental health, to how to deal with everyday stressors, he and Board Member, Derrick Gunn – who acted as moderator – had wide-ranging discussions with the classes and answered any questions they had.
The tips and insights that Dawkins shared are applicable for all ages, so today, we’re sharing highlights of those Classroom Conversations with you. Here’s your chance to go back to school and get some inspiration from one of the best in the game.
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