Widening the spotlight on athlete mental health


In order for athletes to balance their routines with wellness, they need to apply the same principles as they did with sports, says Emmett Gill, term assistant professor in the Department of Social Work within the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University.

Emmett Gill. Photo provided

“You can be disciplined on the field, at the training table, in the weight room, but you have to be disciplined about taking care of your mental health and engaging in self-care,” Gill said.

“Athletes have been speaking out, and tennis player Naomi Osaka, gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps, Brandon Marshall and Dak Prescott of the NFL have had an incredible impact,” he added.

Gill wants to shed more light on the mental health of athletes, particularly Black and Brown athletes.

He said it’s important for athletes struggling with mental health or wellness issues is to identify a mental health professional who they can talk with to give them needed feedback.

“Athletes, and people in general, feel that if you go to a mental health professional then you’re broken, and something is wrong with you, but that’s not necessarily the case,” said Gill.  “It’s amazing how good you can feel about who you are and what you’re doing just having someone to talk to.”

Gill, a licensed social worker, is teaching Foundations of Direct Practice and Foundations of Social Welfare in Mason’s online program. He also teaches courses on advocating and organizing for community change, and research methods for social work.

He is looking forward to serving the Mason athletic community (e.g., basketball and soccer teams) by bringing social work in the fold of Athletics, and has already sat in on a few of Mason’s men’s basketball team practices with head coach Kim English. Gill is also conducting mental health workshops for local college athletic departments, college athletes, coaches and staff with a focus on Black and Brown college athletes and the effects of NCAA’s rules regarding name, image and likeness on college athlete mental health.

Gill received a grant, funded by AJ Muste Foundation, to explore social justice efforts of professional athletes.

“We have figured out that athletes are human too, and have mental health challenges,” said Gill. “The challenge in athletics is that we don’t have any tools specifically developed for athletes.”  

“Think about how much better you can be if you take care of your mental health,” said Gill. “You’re going to be a better wife or husband, son or daughter, employee or student, if you take care of your mental health. That’s where it all starts. It’s not our actions, it’s our intent.”

Gill is working on an app to focus on athlete wellness, with wellness images and quotes. Gill said the app, named Athlete Talk, is designed to meet athletes where they are, and includes a social media wellness feed similar to what you would see on Facebook and Instagram. Other primary features are a multi-day plan, thought and action exercises, and journaling.

Emmett Gill’s expertise is in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice in sports. Prior to joining Mason’s College of Health and Human Services this summer, he worked for NFL Lifeline. He has also served as a faculty member and performed his services in athletics for Rutgers University, North Carolina Central, and the University of Texas at Austin. A licensed social worker, Gill is also a founding member of the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports. He can be reached at egill7@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Jeanene Harris at jharri57@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls more than 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. Learn more at www2.gmu.edu.