Colts owner and CEO Jim Irsay and his family want to change the way we — all of us — view mental health.
Mental illnesses are serious and common, yet too often those affected feel a stigma in talking about them or seeking help. And that stigma can be the matter of life and death.
So the Irsay family created the "Kicking The Stigma" initiative, with the goal of raising awareness about mental health illness while removing the shame and stigma that too frequently is associated with it.
"We're really trying to normalize this conversation and realize that this does literally affect every single person whether it is yourself or a friend or a family member – whoever," Colts vice chair & owner Kalen Jackson said. "It affects everyone in one way, shape or form."
"It's always about how can you make the world a better place," Irsay said. "If you're involved in the business, in this case of entertainment – we are blessed to be the most watched and entertaining sport in the world. With that, I'm just really excited that we can go at this area and really try to help and change the world and society because really, in 2021 it is still not where we need to be, nowhere close when we look at mental illnesses in our society. It just hasn't gotten in our DNA about that it is the same thing as a regular, physical illness."
The Irsay family will host a virtual fundraiser for Kicking The Stigma May 3-6, which will include a roundtable discussion on mental health hosted by NBC's Carson Daly with Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst, Raiders defensive end Solomon Thomas and Raiders tight end Darren Waller.
"I think even just having really successful players talk about it in such a normal way and the importance of it in such a normal way really helps move the needle in this space," Jackson said.
There will also be an online auction — which has experiences and signed memorabilia donated by actor and comedian Jim Gaffigan; former Colts stars Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday; former Colts coach Tony Dungy; and Colts general manager Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich, quarterback Carson Wentz and Leonard.
Writer and director Cameron Crowe, actor Rob Lowe and actor and comedian Mike Epps will also contribute with testimonials and messages throughout the week, which kicks off national Mental Health Awareness Month.
Funds raised will go toward the Kicking The Stigma fund, which supports the Mental Health America (MHA) Indiana, NAMI Greater Indianapolis, Project Healthy Minds and Bring Change to Mind, as well as providing grants to Indiana-based nonprofits that work in the education, support and advocacy of mental health.
"I'm honored to join the Colts and the Irsay family in their Kicking The Stigma initiative," Daly, a host of TODAY and The Voice, said. "Mental health advocacy is a cause I feel passionately about and removing the stigma associated with mental health illnesses and disorders is imperative.
"I'm thrilled to see an NFL team make an impact in this space, and I'm also proud to serve with Kalen Jackson as board members for Project Healthy Minds, an organization dedicated to confronting the mental health crisis. We want to normalize the mental health conversation, educate and support individuals who might be struggling with a mental health disorder, but are hesitant to seek help."
The Irsay family has already committed more than $4 million over the last year to expanding mental health treatment services in Indiana, including to Indiana University Health, Ascension St. Vincent Stress Center, Suburban North Club and MHA Indiana, NAMI Greater Indianapolis, Project Healthy Minds and Bring Change to Mind. The Irsay family also endowed the Irsay Family Wellness Center at Indiana University, which emphasizes physical and mental health wellness to student-athletes.
Additionally, the Irsay family has released two national PSAs — one including Leonard — with more to come.
"I am thankful for how the Colts and the Irsays are tackling mental health stigma, as the more public the discussions are around mental health, the more it will be – as Kalen (Jackson) said – normalized and seen as one of just many health conditions someone may have," Mental Health America's Cathy Boggs said. "This campaign comes at such a critical time in Indiana as the number of people seeking mental health and addiction care is increasing, and more young people are struggling with their mental health. This illness does not discriminate."
The Irsay family hopes Kicking The Stigma will help create a more accepting environment for discussions and support around mental illness, the prevalence of which has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic; prior, one in 10 adults reported those symptoms, Boggs said.
About half the United States' population is estimated to have had a mental illness at some point in their lives. Yet only half of people with mental health challenges will ever get treatment.
And it's also not lost on the Irsays that using football to support mental health can have a significant impact on, truly, kicking the stigma about something so serious, yet so common.
"I think that it can be enormously impactful because look at – our guys are the toughest guys," Irsay said. "… Darius (Leonard) knocks it out of the park with the way he is, just the man that he is – Pro Bowl, All-Pro linebacker, one of the toughest positions to play in the NFL and look what he is saying.
"It's all right not to be OK. That's really what it's about."