Aaron Donald working to break stigma on mental health, sharing message with local kids

PITTSBURGH — May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and one of Pittsburgh’s toughest sons is working to break the stigma.

Former defensive player of the year and Super Bowl champion Aaron Donald is taking that message to area children.

“As athletes, we’re always looked at looked at as the macho man or the tough person who doesn’t show emotion and holds things in,” Donald told Channel 11 exclusively. “But you’ve got to be able to share, you got to be able to get things off your chest, you got to be vulnerable at times, cry if need be.”

On the field, he’s a menacing defensive end who pulverizes opposing quarterbacks, but that’s just a part of who Donald is.

“I’m so much more than that,” said Donald. “So much more goes into who I am as a person.”

He’s sharing that message with people of all ages, especially young athletes here in his hometown.

“I think as kids, we don’t realize how much your mental health can play a part in your day-to-day,” said Donald.

Through his foundation, AD99 Solutions, Donald works with teenage student-athletes as part of his annual mental flex forum. The goal is to help them focus on their mental wellness and develop healthy ways to stay focused on and off the field.

“I ain’t a professional at all when we talk about mental health,” said Donald. “But I’ve been through a lot, I’m going through a lot. I’m not perfect at it, I’m still dealing with and trying to be better at it. But all I can do is give them tips that’s helped me.”

He stresses the importance of speaking out and speaking up when you’re struggling, even if you feel like you can’t find the words to do so.

“Having somebody to have an outlet to speak to, even if that’s just you speaking to yourself through self-motivation, or whatever the case may be,” said Donald.  “Not trying to hold it and keep it bottled in but being able to speak relieves that stress that’s on your mind or your heart.”

That message of telling someone you trust that you’re dealing with something is one that already is resonating.

“Sports requires a lot out of an athlete and so you don’t want to be distracted by what’s going on outside of your life or something that’s really impacting your life in a negative way,” said AD99 Solutions Prep Forward student Enysah Roberts.

“We are that empowerment, that empowering leader for everyone, our community and people outside of our community,” added Prep Forward Student Makalah Small McCray. “So having people like us, speak up for the youth and be a part of the youth is really big and impactful.”

For Donald, hosting events like the Mental Flex Forum and having healthy conversations isn’t just what he calls a true blessing. It’s something he feels is a responsibility.

“It’s so much bigger than football,” said Donald. “There’s so much bigger than sports period. Because all this can translate to, to life, you know, and that’s the main goal.”

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