“We hope that these stories will illuminate an issue or a person’s experience and help create empathy.”

Olympic legend Michael Phelps' saga is the latest in ESPN's ongoing storytelling regarding the intersection of mental health and sports

In recognition of the global observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, ESPN this week highlights stories at the intersection of mental health and sports.

Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps has been open about managing his mental health. During the coronavirus pandemic, he continues to encourage others to seek help. In this as-told-to story with ESPN senior writer Wayne Drehs, Phelps says exercise and therapy help him. Today, Phelps appeared on the “OTL on SC” segment on the noon ET SportsCenter, the first of a week-long series of guests related to Mental Health Awareness Month.

Front Row asked Jena Janovy, senior deputy editor in the Digital Storytelling Group and espnW, to explore ESPN’s efforts to help raise awareness through quality storytelling.

What was your goal for Mental Health Awareness Month?
We set out late last year to plan a month of content that would highlight stories at the intersection of mental health and sports. Our goal was to help raise awareness, provide information, improve understanding, and amplify the conversations about how athletes, coaches, and other sports figures seek treatment and the approaches that work for them. We wanted to show how people can thrive while they manage their mental health, and in doing so, perhaps help fight stigmas and break down barriers to understanding the various diagnoses and conditions.

(ESPN Illustration)

How do you plan for compelling content?
Patricia Mays [senior director, Content Strategy & Distribution] started the process of creating a comprehensive company-wide plan in late-2019. She invited a group of content leaders from around the company to discuss how we could align ideas and plans.

We sought ideas from writers, editors, producers, executives, news leaders, ESPN ENABLED ERG [Employee Resource Group] members, the ESPN T.R.U.S.T. team*, Corporate Citizenship partners, ESPN Wellness leaders, Diversity & Inclusion team members and so many more. Patricia invited Rebecca Colasanto, director of behavioral health for the Bristol Healthcare Group, to lunch to discuss approaches and potential pitfalls.

We gathered archive content and sought story pitches. In early 2020, we created a team to focus on planning. [Coordinating producer] Michael Baltierra and I started meeting in January and have been working in tandem since. We synced up with colleagues in E60, the Digital Storytelling Group, The Daily sports group, the ESPN Daily podcast, and The Undefeated to outline stories. We worked with editors who manage editorial language guidelines. ESPN has been doing stories about mental health and sports for years. The amount and quality of storytelling about these subjects in our archives are astonishing.

Why is ESPN focused on Mental Health Awareness? How did you identify the right content?
We are focused on mental health awareness because our mental wellbeing is a part of who we are as humans, and one of our most important jobs as journalists and storytellers is to seek a greater understanding of the human condition. These issues are part of our world, and it’s important that we reflect that. With greater awareness can come greater understanding, empathy, and acceptance.

How does storytelling help to break the stigma with mental health?
We hope that these stories will illuminate an issue or a person’s experience and help create empathy. If people see themselves, they connect, they relate. Or if people see athletes who inspire them — Kevin Love, Phelps, Keyon Dooling, Hanna Hall, Brian Maurer, Brad “Scar” Vaughn — perhaps they’ll be inspired by their stories of courage and hope and wellness.

*ESPN T.R.U.S.T. is an internal ESPN community that provides resources and support to employees as well as the business and helps to educate on mental health and mental wellbeing when creating content.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 29, E:60 presents “Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story.” Watch the trailer below. The program will air on the anniversary of the day in 2010 when Halladay pitched a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies. For more, visit’s Mental Health Awareness Month Stories Index Page.

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