Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said he's taking on a lead role in the team's Kicking the Stigma mental health initiative, which will formally launch in May, after going through his own struggles following the death of his brother, Keivonte Waters, in 2012.
Leonard discussed the importance of moving past the stigma related to mental health conditions during an interview with Judy Battista of NFL.com released Wednesday.
"It's OK to not be OK," Leonard said. "I knew I needed help, and for a long time, I didn't reach out. Once I did reach out, I knew that's what made it better for me. A lot of people have a stigma, especially as men, that you can't show weakness. I'm letting the world know, as a professional football player, a linebacker, one of the most aggressive positions on the field, there's still no weakness because you're having mental health issues."
The 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year explained he had a minor disagreement with his brother before his death during a fight at a club. He told Battista the fact their relationship ended on a low note after years of being extremely close took a long-term toll on his mental health.
"That's what had been eating me alive," Leonard said. "I stopped eating. I lost so much weight. I wasn't happy. I wasn't the full energetic guy I would always be. I would have anxiety attacks. I couldn't sleep. There's no way I'm 19, 20 years old feeling this way, no way I should be getting EKGs every month. No way I should be seeing a heart specialist. That's when it really hit me that I need help. If I don't find help, there is only one other way this could possibly go."
The 25-year-old South Carolina native said there are still moments where those thoughts about his brother pop up, but he's become better at handling the emotions after getting help.
"Me breaking down, showing my emotions, that's helping me out rather than keeping my emotions inside," Leonard told Battista. "That's better than keeping it inside."
Now his goal has become to help people in similar situations who may be trying to bottle up their emotions instead of seeking out mental health support.
He recently took part in a roundtable with other NFL players, including the Atlanta Falcons' Hayden Hurst and the Las Vegas Raiders' Solomon Thomas and Darren Waller, with NBC's Carson Daly serving as host to discuss their "struggles and breakthroughs and the importance of reaching out for help," per Battista.
Colts owner Jim Irsay, another key figure in the launch of the Kicking the Stigma campaign, said they're hopeful the message is able to reach those in need.
"The awareness is so critical," Irsay said. "We've got to reach that person who is sitting in their basement and the commercial comes on, and maybe they think, 'I'll give it one last whirl.'"
Their efforts will officially begin with Kicking the Stigma Week, a series of events, including the release of the Daly-led roundtable, from May 3-6.