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A Red Sox joint philanthropic effort targets mental health of athletes and fans

NBA player Kevin Love spoke via video during a forum on sports and mental health at Fenway Park Monday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Despite the efforts of a few brave souls such as Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love, plus a PSA here and there, the perception remains that elite athletes possess a superior immune system when it comes to mental health.

A joint philanthropic effort is going to try hard to lay bare that myth, with the hope that more honesty can bring about more healing — not just among the athletes, but among those who look up to them.

Citing statistics that 26 percent of the general population in the US has a diagnosed mental disorder and 35 percent of elite athletes live with a mental health condition, Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said athletes “are significantly less likely to seek mental health than the general public” via Zoom at a Fenway Park event Monday.

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Naomi Osaka has been outspoken when it comes to the importance that mental health plays in the performance of an elite athlete.Clive Brunskill/Getty

“The collaboration between the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Boston Red Sox team and foundation seeks to encourage sports teams, athletes, and fans alike to have an open conversation about mental health, affect policies, and to change public attitudes.

“We believe that sports, like entertainment, have a significant impact and influence on our society. While changing attitudes does not happen overnight, we need to act today.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who has spoken often of the stigma attached to her family’s delay in seeking treatment of her mother’s late-onset schizophrenia, applauded the intent and the timing for addressing mental health, which she described as “truly the epidemic that is coming out of this pandemic.

“Sports, especially in Boston, is so much of how we identify ourselves as part of a larger community; they’re so much of how we think about what it takes to be considered strong and championship-level and resilient. They’re how we take pride in who we are, where we live, and who we are connected to.”

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Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services of Massachusetts, stressed that the lag between mental-health symptoms and seeking treatment is out of whack compared with how swiftly we visit a doctor for our physical ailments — 6-9 years on average before seeking treatment for depression, 9-23 years for anxiety disorders.

“You don’t want to wait until the house is on fire,” said Sudders.

Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, Dr. Richard Ginsberg, the director of the Behavioral Health Program with the Red Sox, and Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, Assistant Director of Psychology Training for the Department of Psychiatry at MGH during a panel discussion on sports and mental health Monday at Fenway Park. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“When a player gets injured, they see a doctor,” said Love in a video message. “We shouldn’t diminish physical health, and mental health is no different.”

Dr. Richard Ginsberg, director of the Red Sox’ first-of-its-kind Behavioral Health Program, said that athletes are embracing mental health more than before, but there’s room to improve and that improvement can pay dividends in performance.

“Asking, ‘How are you doing? Really, how are you doing?’ and actually doing the formal assessment screenings, mental-health screenings on all players and even staff to be able to get to things sooner gives us a competitive advantage in terms of, ‘OK, now we know what to do,’ and you can do it earlier,” said Ginsberg.

Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, assistant director of psychology training in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said talking about mental health can lead to better mental health.

“We can change the narrative,” he said, “from mental health equates to crisis to mental health equates to health in general.”


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.