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Colts owner Kalen Jackson is changing the way we think about mental health in sports

Jackson, who is also the daughter of NFL mainstay Jim Irsay, is opening up about her own struggles with anxiety as she makes a push to prioritize mental health in the NFL.
Colts owner Kalen Jackson smiles for a photo with (left to right) players Mike Strachan, Ben Banogu, and Kenny Moore II.
Colts owner Kalen Jackson smiles for a photo with (left to right) players Mike Strachan, Ben Banogu, and Kenny Moore II.Courtesy of Indianapolis Colts.

The NFL is known for its culture of hyper-masculine toughness and bravado. Talking about mental health hasn’t always been normalized or encouraged.

Indianapolis Colts owner Kalen Jackson wants to change that.

Jackson, who is also the daughter of NFL mainstay Jim Irsay, is opening up about her own struggles with anxiety as she makes a push to prioritize mental health in the NFL.

“I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life, and my dad has openly struggled with substance use disorder and is doing really well thankfully in recovery. But it's definitely something that’s shaped who we are and shaped our lives,” said Jackson. “It’s no different than any other illness. It’s not your fault and it’s nothing you did. Trying to get over that part — that’s why so many people don’t seek help.”

Kalen Jackson with her father, Jim Irsay.Courtesy of Indianapolis Colts. / Jared Siskin/PMC/PMC

With her family, Jackson recently launched a Kicking the Stigma initiative, which raises awareness about mental health disorders and works to remove the shame and stigma often associated with those illnesses.

Jackson had a feeling that if NFL players were open about their mental health concerns, it could make others – both on and off the field – feel comfortable seeking help as well.

“I think especially in the NFL, people talk about how they’re tough, they’re strong, they’re supposed to be almost invincible — and to see them be vulnerable and to see them say ‘I’m not OK and that’s OK,’ that’s a big deal,” said Jackson.

Since the initiative launched, the Colts hosted a panel with their own linebacker Darius Leonard, as well as the Atlanta Falcons’ Hayden Hurst, and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Solomon Thomas and Darren Waller. The panel was hosted by NBC’s Carson Daly, who has also been open about his struggles with anxiety.

The players shared videos on social media and talked about their own struggles with mental health and how there is no shame in seeking help. During the panel, Leonard talked about struggling with the loss of his brother and best friend, who died in 2012. Hurst referred to his “anticipatory anxiety” about speaking on the panel had him worried throughout the morning. And Waller acknowledged using alcohol and drugs in the past as a way to deal with his mental health struggles.

For Colts fans, the initiative may come as some surprise given Irsay’s issues with substance abuse, which have been well-documented by the press over the years. But for Jackson, her father’s immediate backing of the cause only reiterated the image of her family that she had always held.

“His story has kind of been written about him and this is the first time we’ve kind of told our own version of the story if you will,” said Jackson. “In a way, I think it’s been healing for us too to be able to talk about these things. We’ve never hid anything, we’re very wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve. But when you’re in the public eye it is different-feeling and you worry about what people are gonna think or say…”

The NFL has made strides regarding the mental health of their players in recent years. For example, in 2019, the NFL started requiring teams to have a behavioral health clinician available to their players at team facilities for at least eight to 12 hours per week. The league also expanded the player health and safety initiative to include services that help former players find mental health professionals. Through this portal, they also released NFL Life Line, which connects current and former players to counselors any time of day or night.

Jackson said the Colts already had hired Elizabeth White, a licensed mental health counselor,to work full time.

“Having someone that you can just walk down the hallway or pop in just to normalize that — and having her just be here any day [is crucial],” Jackson told Know Your Value. “The players love [White], and she has such a trust with them. That also is a testament to what [mental health services] can do to a culture and an organization.”