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Mental Health Awareness Month offers opportunities to dispel stigmas

By Natalie Graves

When we think of the month of February or October, there is an immediate connection to heart health or breast cancer awareness respectively. As a mental health professional, it is my hope that May will one day yield automatic thoughts and actions around mental wellness in our community. It has taken decades for us to even acknowledge that mental health treatment is just as real and necessary as the urgent attention paid to medical conditions. However, there are so many stigmas attached to mental illness that we have yet to dispel. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, now is a great time to get started.

My area of specialty in the mental health discipline focuses on athletes’ mental wellness and their performance. As popular as sports are in American culture, the mental well-being of players is generally an afterthought when it comes to overall performance and professional support. Earlier this year at an NCAA Rules Convention, members voted that starting Aug. 1, student-athletes at Power 5 colleges will be guaranteed access to mental health services and resources. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC conferences passed legislation that requires member schools to make mental health services available and distribute educational materials. While this is a huge move forward in the right direction, my concern remains with the countless athletes right here in Chicago and across the country who are not getting the mental health assistance they need, and most don’t even realize they need it.

I believe that it is my calling to effect change in this space. After growing up in a family surrounded by sports lovers combined with my inherent desire to counsel others, I developed a career path that led to a professional practice in support of athletes/coaches and their mental wellness, Natalie Graves Athletic Counseling. On any given day, I may counsel a high school basketball player who is recovering from an injury to a soon-to-be retired NFL player who wonders how he will function in his new life after the pros.

It is indeed rewarding work, but my heart led me to do more. So I started an organization called the 1 in 4 Project. The name stems from the fact that in any given year, 1 in 4 people suffer from some type of mental illness from depression to anxiety or alcoholism. Through collaborations with local service agencies, the 1 in 4 Project strives to build effective practices and educate communities throughout the country and ultimately improve the lives of athletes and coaches both on and off the playing field.

On June 22-23 the 1 in 4 Project will host its first-ever Student Athlete Expo at the Pullman Center on Chicago’s south side. The first of its kind in Chicagoland, the Student Athlete Expo will offer high school and college athletes two days of resources, panelists, guest speakers, vendors, entertainment and wraparound services. From mental health support to sports products, services and recruitment, it will be there! Am I nervous about this immense undertaking? Absolutely! But I know that this event will begin to fill a void that is desperately needed in our sports community.

It’s time that athletes and their families recognize the significant impact that mental health can have on one’s sports career. Mental health professionals like me and many of my colleagues are out here advocating for more support and resources for our youth in this realm, and I hope you will join us. For more information about the Student Athlete Expo, visit 1 in 4 or call 773-294-3903. Let’s dispel the stigmas connected to mental health and make it okay for those who need help to seek it without ridicule.

Natalie Graves is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert in the area of mental health and wellness for athletes. Graves owns a private practice (Natalie Graves Athletic Counseling) specializing in this discipline. To book Graves for media interviews or speaking engagements, call 773-294-3903 or send an email to [email protected]. For more information, visit

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