Why more PBA players need to talk about mental health

After their first win, Chris Ross used his post-game interview to send a message.

“There’s mental health issues. People go through things. If you can, just reach out to a friend because you never know what they’re going through,” Ross said on national television. “Just go out there and check on people because mental health issues are serious.”

The next day, the San Miguel mainstay was holding his trophy at the PBA Press Corps Awards when he brought up the issue again: “Mental health is important,” he said in front of a ballroom full of PBA governors and fellow athletes. “We’re losing people every day.”

In the Philippines, the stigma against discussing mental health is still strong. Just think of the many outdated terms that are casually dropped in conversation—may topak, may sayad, may tililing—that lump all mental health conditions together, regardless of kind or severity, and with an implied dose of disapproval.

And yet the Philippines has the highest number of reported cases of depression in Southeast Asia. A 2015 study by the Global Burden of Disease says 3.3 million Filipinos have depressive disorders—yet experts believe the actual number is higher, because the stigma against talking about mental health leads people to under-report their conditions.

It doesn’t help that a large part of Filipino culture adheres to traditional gender roles. Imagine being a boy going through a bout of anxiety, only to be told “magpakalalaki ka.” It isn’t surprising that the same 2015 report lists a higher suicide rate among men than women, with 2.5 reported suicides in every 100,000 people diagnosed with a depressive disorder.

And this reluctance to process one’s inner state often is reinforced in male-dominated fields like sports, where strength is more easily defined by the strength of one’s muscles and the power in one’s stride. I’ve been inside enough dugouts and spent time with enough athletes to know seeking emotional support can get them teased as “chicks” or “bakla.”

But that’s not to say sports is not a place to discuss mental health. On the contrary, athletes themselves are at risk: the high-pressure environment of professional leagues places them in a stressful position, while their fame amplifies the weight of their decisions. When you hear of players whose careers are put in jeopardy because of erratic behaviors or addictions, that’s a mental health issue. And it’s time we acknowledged that, because that would also normalize getting treatment.

Looking at the big picture, male sports personalities could be such powerful ambassadors for mental health, especially when reaching young men. They need to see their role models—strong, successful men who appear to have it all—speak up.

In the NBA, guys like Kevin Love, Demar Derozan and Trae Young have opened up about their own struggles with anxiety and depression. Here’s to hoping that the words of Ross, a successful, multi-titled athlete with the most dominant team in the league, could be the spark in the PBA.

In a recent Facebook Live session for the PBA, NLEX Road Warriors rookies Kris Porter and Kyles Lao were asked what their personal advocacies were. They both answered “mental health,” and in a follow-up post to their team’s page, the two got real about how their experiences caring for loved ones with mental health issues, and their own strategies for coping with difficult emotions.

“I’d like to say it’s unfair that guys or boys are expected to deal with their emotions differently that girls. Just because he’s a different gender or sex doesn’t mean his emotions are any less relevant,” says Porter. “Don’t be scared to own it. If you’re going through something, let people know. Kami naman [as PBA players], I guess you can say we’re already starting the rest of our lives but that doesn’t mean we don’t go through problems.”

“The first step I take is to accept I’m going through something and let people know I need help,” adds Porter. “More often than not, the people around me—whether it’s my girlfriend, my family, my friends—can help me through it. It might be the same for you, it might not be. I don’t know. But you have to acknowledge it first. Just because you’re a boy doesn’t mean you should disregard your feelings and emotions.”

“It’s not a laughing matter anymore. It’s okay to not be okay…True strength and bravery lies in acceptance and actually reaching out to people,” Lao says, adding on his own Facebook page: “I know that, at the end of the day, the solution would come from within but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help and make life easier, happier and a lot more meaningful. So always know that we are here for you guys. We’re not giving up on you! Here to listen. Here to understand. Always!”

More athletes speaking up about mental health helps themselves, their fellow athletes, the people who look up to them, and the communities that surround them. Their jobs may be unique and their lifestyles may be out of reach, but in many ways—perhaps in the most human ones—they’re just like everyone else.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Call DOH and Natasha Goulbourn Foundation’s HOPELINE 24/7 suicide prevention and emotional crisis hotline: (02) 804-HOPE (4673), 0917-558-HOPE (4673) and 2919 (toll-free number for all Globe and TM subscribers).