Break the silence

Rob Oller
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said "it's not a weakness" for players to ask for help with any mental health issues they might be having. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

A football helmet protects the head but cannot safeguard the mind. For that to happen, a person needs more help. Mental help.

Ohio State defensive lineman Robert Landers spoke passionately Thursday about his own struggles with mental health — about 12 hours after former Buckeyes walk-on Zach Slagle died by suicide inside his Canton home.

Slagle, an Ohio State offensive lineman from 2006 to '08, posted a message on Facebook at 1 a.m. Thursday that referenced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. Police broke in to his home and found him at about 1:30 a.m., dead from a gunshot wound.

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In the message, Slagle wrote "#checkforCTE." Social media commenters, including family members, mourned his loss while sympathizing with the anguish and emotional highs and lows that tortured the 31-year-old. Many mentioned the dangers of depression and how sufferers can get help.

Even when those suffering play football.

Football has always fostered a “never cry” culture, but increased mental health awareness is breaking down negative stereotypes associated with counseling.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day is prioritizing the need to educate young people about mental health. He and his wife, Nina, have partnered with “On Our Sleeves,” a campaign developed by Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to raise awareness and money for childhood mental illness.

Day didn’t know Slagle but understands the challenges faced by anyone fighting mental issues. He is especially attuned to the needs of his players, which is why he is thrilled that the Ohio State athletic department has doubled its sports psychology unit to include four full-time staff members.

“They’ll be available for the guys to be around, to get to know them and feel more comfortable with them,” said Day, adding that the negative stigma associated with mental illness needs to end.

“It’s not a weakness,” he said of asking for help. “These kids are at an all-time high for exposure. … On social media they’re exposed to criticism, always being compared to others and told they need to be better than someone else.”

Landers spoke for 10 minutes about his mental health issues. After last weekend's shootings in his hometown of Dayton, he posted a video encouraging those affected by the tragedy to seek help.

What new and better world is this, where a college football player feels freed up to show emotional vulnerability?

“It’s been an uphill battle for the majority of my life,” said Landers, who was 10 years old when his father was shot and killed. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of how it could affect a person until I got to OSU. I was one of those stereotypical men who said, ‘You can’t be soft.’”

Landers said it took “getting out of my ignorant understanding” before he could begin to successfully deal with his depression and anxiety, which had put him “in straight zombie mode.”

“I was the type of person who would not talk to anybody about my issues,” he said. “I wasn’t into counseling, because at the end of the day you leave the office and still have to deal with what’s going on. It took me maturing to see it actually helps you. It’s not about being weak, but, ‘I need help. I’m struggling.’”

Not everyone needs counseling, but most everyone could benefit from it. As Landers explained it, the important thing is to talk things out with another person. For him, that might be Day, defensive line coach Larry Johnson or someone on the training staff.

Sharing needs is not always easy. Old obstacles still exist; nonsense such as “suck it up” and “act like a man.” For my money, by encouraging others to seek help, Landers is acting like more than just a man. He is being a leader.


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