Inspirational, but Flawed: A Therapist’s Open Letter to Tyson Fury

"As inspiring as your overall message is, there is a dangerous secondary message rolled in."

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Dear Tyson,

I should start by sheepishly admitting I’m not an avid follower of professional boxing.  Make no mistake, I am a self-proclaimed sports nut, but boxing typically takes a backseat to my more preferred sports.

I am, however, a true fan of grit and resilience, regardless of the sport.

This is one of the main reasons why I love sports.  Sports offer me the ongoing opportunity to see true individual and team grit play out live. I’d be lying if I said I watched your match against Deontay Wilder earlier this month (sorry, but the whole pay-per-view thing just isn’t my jam).  

Instead of shelling out $75, I closely followed the live round-by-round results on my phone. When you went down early in the fight, I was surprised but certain you would get back up. In the 12th and final round, however, I thought you were a goner.  I was wrong. Very wrong. Your performance in this fight reflected all that I truly love about competitive sports.  

The grit you showed by getting back on your feet in the final round was something the writers of “Rudy” or “Hoosiers” couldn’t conjure up.  You were able to feel the pain, accept the pain, and then embrace the moment by getting back on your feet. If that’s not resilience, then I don’t know what is.

Those few seconds in the final round served as a brief but timely metaphor for your battle against a much bigger and complex opponent: mental illness.  

In the weeks preceding and following the fight, you talked extensively about your struggles with depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse.  You are not the first male athlete to talk openly about personal struggles with mental illness, and I’m confident you won’t be the last. However, there is a unique importance that comes from someone like you opening up about mental illness.

You see, Tyson, the mental illness stigma is still alive and well.  

Sure, we have done significant work as a society to slowly chip away at the stigma, but there is still further west to go.

The salience of mental illness stigmatization varies considerably depending on which subpopulation you look at. Among men like you, who value traditional masculinity, the stigma is most unforgiving and unwavering. Men like you, Tyson, who revel in and embrace traditionally masculine values like strength and independence, quite often have the hardest time sharing any cracks in their psychological health.  

Given societal pressures for men to soldier on, buck up and suck it up, it is undeniably an incredibly vulnerable experience for men to discuss mental health concerns. Traditional masculinity carries with it a notion that experiencing struggling with mental illness is a sign of weakness, a sign of not being able to “take care of things on your own.” 

This is exactly why I believe it is so powerful for men in our society to see a man like you, who embodies strength and toughness, disclose his struggles with mental illness. 

I’ve always believed that getting people who are least likely to discuss their mental health concerns to do so would be a pivotal point in the fight against mental illness stigmatization.  By disclosing your own struggles with mental illness, you have inspired a group of men that have been living in the darkness, far too scared to openly admit they struggle with similar concerns.  You have made them feel less alone, less ashamed, and more hopeful about their future.

As inspiring as your overall message is, there is a dangerous secondary message rolled in.  

While you slip in a couple postscripts suggesting that people seek help from a professional, you (either intentionally or unintentionally) send the message that anyone can conquer mental illness on their own.  Sadly, Tyson, this is just not the case.

Mental illness is a broad construct, often loosely referring to the well over 300 disorders in the latest version of our diagnostic and statistical manual.  It is no surprise that mental illness can show in many different forms, and is influenced by a multitude of variables that we are only starting to understand.

Even for people like myself, who have dedicated their career to understanding mental illness, there are still many unanswered questions.

For example, while we have many extensively researched theories, we do not fully understand the complete etiological origin of most mental disorders.  Moreover, many mental disorders often consist of a list of many possible symptoms. Therefore, two people with the same mental disorder may experience a vastly different symptom presentation and associated challenges.  However, there is good news.

There are many empirically supported treatments for all kinds of mental illness from psychotherapies to psychotropic medications that have been shown to significantly help improve quality of life.  While personal strength and resilience are irreplaceable, the smartest thing one can do is seek help from a qualified professional. Whether it be a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a therapist, or even one’s primary care physician, such professionals have a wealth of knowledge in terms of evidence-based approaches to alleviating symptoms of psychopathology.

It is the stigma that prevents people from seeking help.  

You could have inspired a group of people to seek help who would never be caught dead seeking such help.  This was a missed opportunity, Tyson. You took care of step one beautifully: encourage a population who is reluctant to talk about mental health to talk about it.  

However, there is still the second step: encourage them to be comfortable getting help.  Personal resilience is great, but is no substitute for seeking professional help when struggling with mental health challenges.

In the end, I thank you Tyson, for being willing to share your battle against mental illness.  It is never too late to continue your message. To encourage us guys out there to think differently about what it means to be masculine. One of the gutsiest things someone can do is admit they have a problem and seek help to solve the problem.  

While I probably will not pay to watch your rematch against Wilder, I look forward to seeing your beautiful display of resilience yet again.  

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