PROVO — Before Tanner Mangum could seek the help he needed, the BYU quarterback had to convince himself that admitting he was struggling didn’t make him weak.
“I’m a very positive, optimistic, happy person,” he told the Deseret News Thursday. “But I also have an anxious side to me. I’m a people pleaser; I’m afraid to disappoint anyone, which would really stress me out.”
The 23-year-old Idaho native has struggled with depression and anxiety throughout his life, but last fall it got to a point where he reached out to his family. They advised him to seek professional help, which he did, noting there was nothing specific that led to his decision.
“Just the culmination of it weighing on me last fall,” Mangum said. “It started intensifying. It just got to the point where I realized, I could use some help.”
Asking for help with any kind of mental illness, he acknowledged, might be the most difficult step — especially when you spend everyday competing in a game that takes “mind over matter” to extremes.
“Football is a hyper-masculine activity,” he said. “It requires toughness, resilience and mental toughness, and those are things I do believe in. But I also recognize that there is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It’s just a different kind of struggle.”
On Monday, Mangum posted on Instagram about his struggles with depression and anxiety, including the fact that he takes medication and sees a counselor.
“I am not ashamed,” he wrote. “On the contrary, I am proud to embrace my own personal journey, accept and love myself — flaws and all. I am grateful to be able to raise my voice, and stand up for those who experience similar struggles.”
Mangum, whose freshman debut for the Cougars included a thrilling last-second 42-yard touchdown pass at Nebraska for a 2015 victory, said he’d been thinking about sharing his story for the past month. He was moved to action this week because it’s Mental Health Awareness Week at BYU, and he was inspired by the courage of others.
“I have been feeling that I wanted to do more, to step up and use my voice to help other people,” he said. “I feel like it’s selfish to have (his stature as BYU’s quarterback) not benefit other people. … I heard other people sharing their stories, and it just kind of inspired me to want to do more, and to go out and share what I’ve learned.”
He said he hopes making his own mental health issues public will help eliminate the stigma that keeps many people from asking for help or admitting they’re struggling. He’s joined a group on campus that speaks at various events letting students know that there are counseling and psychological services available on campus.
Mangum said he’s been pleasantly surprised at the response his Instagram post received.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Just seeing the support has been incredible. It’s strengthening to me. If I can help one person, then it would be worth it. They should know they’re not alone, and it’s better dealing with it together.”
He even heard from NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who started a foundation dedicated to eradicating the stigma associated with mental illness after going public with his diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder in 2015.
“I drew inspiration from seeing other people talk about it,” Mangum said. “(Marshall) became aware of my post on Monday, and he contacted me about meeting up, and seeing what we can do together. …The outpouring of love and support has been amazing.”
Mangum said he’s interested in not only mental health advocacy, but also just being of service to those around him because that’s what’s kept his own depression and anxiety in check. When he was serving a mission for the LDS Church, he had very few struggles, and he attributes that to focusing on helping others and the needs of others.
“I’m doing my best to learn to give of myself more, to serve more,” he said. “It takes my mind off my struggles, and I feel better. I feel stronger.”
Mangum takes medication for depression and anxiety, and his hopes are not just in convincing those suffering to seek help. He also hopes to educate those without mental illness to the realities of hardships that are debilitating but that can’t be seen.
“All I know is that I want to keep the conversation going,” he said. “I want to let people know that it’s OK to have these issues, to ask for help, and that we’re all human, we all struggle in different ways.”
He said despite his desire, it was a difficult decision.
“It’s scary to be vulnerable,” he admitted. “But when you do it, it’s very freeing. … I feel empowered, definitely.”