From one of the best running backs in Badger football history, to a recovery coach for addiction, Montee Ball has become a voice for so many struggling with mental health and alcoholism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You have to understand that every failure is a lesson,” Ball said. “I proudly share my story because I’m in a different place now, where I know I’m a different human being than I used to be. People can change.”
Ball’s battle with alcoholism began in Madison, and escalated after getting drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2013. Just three years later, he watched the Broncos win the Super Bowl from a jail cell, where he was booked on domestic violence charges.
Ball is now sober, and works for Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, helping others overcome addiction. He leads discussions on sobriety and mental health for organizations and individuals around the country, and speaks at colleges.
In 2018, he created the Montee Ball Fund at the University of Wisconsin to get student-athletes more mental health support. Like so many others, his struggle with alcohol was rooted in anxiety and depression.
“The pressure put on student-athletes is very real,” Ball said. “I know I’m not the only one who suffered, so I make sure to keep ringing this bell.”
The state of Wisconsin has long been known for its drinking culture. The pandemic has only intensified it, according to health experts. Just how much though, remains to be seen.
A survey done in February by the American Psychological Association (APA) found nearly one in every four adults reports drinking more to manage pandemic stress.
The APA went on to detail that previous national disasters - including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina - have been followed by increases in alcohol abuse among those who experienced them and their aftermath. But researchers have never studied the impact on drinking behavior of a catastrophe that lasted as long and was as pervasive as the current pandemic. Nor did those earlier events increase social isolation, while also initiating widespread changes in the availability of alcohol through takeout and delivery, as COVID-19 has.
Heavy drinking is defined as having four or more drinks on one occasion. A study done by Harvard Health found there has been a 14 percent increase in heavy drinking among adults during the pandemic.
In March of 2020, when the pandemic started, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol, compared to March of 2019. That’s according to research done by Nielsen.
“Due to COVID, due to isolation, I think that has set us back even further,” Ball said.
For Ball, regularly seeing a therapist has been a game-changer. He’s trying to end the stigma that men often associate with therapy.
“In our Black and brown communities, we do not speak of mental health, or about what you do to take care of your mind and soul,” he said. “Instead, there’s a liquor store on every single corner in our neighborhoods, and not equal access to healthcare. We’re not encouraged to have these platforms where men can cry and be vulnerable, or hug and share struggles.”
That’s part of the reason Ball started an addiction-support podcast during this pandemic, known as “Untapped Keg.”
“Having discussions like this is key,” Ball said. “We need to talk about it, show the data, and create more safe spaces to open up to each other.”
Ball’s also almost done writing a book about his personal journey to sobriety. He says if you are struggling and looking for support with addiction and recovery, you can reach out to him directly on his social media accounts.