Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham is using his platform to discuss important topics and normalize talking about mental health. Ham said growing up, a term such as "mental illness" carried a negative connotation and was misunderstood in the community he was in.
Going forward, he wants to open up the discussion and make others feel seen.
He said in his early years, mental health "wasn't very important" to him.
"Yeah, we talked about it in school, but very briefly," he said. "It was a part of the curriculum, but it didn't necessarily hit home. You think about somebody who has issues that don't necessarily pertain to you, so you just sort of overlook them, and you don't really give them much thought."
Now that he knows more about the topic, he realized that it is crucial to talk about it openly and normalize the topic.
He said in particular men have difficultly admitted to mental health struggles, citing pride as the main reason men do not want to show "weakness" or "vulnerabilities."
From a personal standpoint, he says, "As a Black man, experiencing injustice – from a young age all the way through today – those things weigh on you. When it comes to self-worth and feeling like you're enough, [wondering] if people truly care about who you are."
"I think that's one of the reasons why I think men in general don't want to put themselves in that light – because they don't want people to see them in their darkest moments … where they need help … We all struggle with mental issues, with things that can cripple us. Everybody's on different levels mentally. But to see people who have influence be able to come out and share these things with the world, be vulnerable, that normalizes it. It humanizes us so that when kids [or others] feel this way, they don't feel alone."
It got to a point where his physical health was impacted as well, not being able to sleep, having stomach aches and hyperventilating over experiences as a child he had not yet openly talked about.
Senior year at Augustana College he reached out for help, and got assistance in combatting his stutter and from there he no longer let it define him.
"It was something that I let define me for so long, that it just affected my day-to-day; it affected my interactions with other people," he said.
"And finally when I was able to take hold of that and take over that, I was freed from it. I think that's a big step for all of us to look at – whatever's going on in your life, whatever you're dealing with, don't let it define who you are. … You are [more] than your mental state. You are [more] than that disability that you may struggle with."
He continued, saying, "It has no more power when you get it out of the dark. These opportunities kept coming to me to speak in front of thousands of people, or just have interactions with people, and I knew if I said 'no,' it would still have hold of me. … I wouldn't be able to get better; I wouldn't be able to shine a light on it. I think because of me saying 'yes' and working at it, I believe that God is using my weakness to be one of my strongest points in my life."
Even though Ham has reached out for help and has a better grip on his mental health, that does not mean he is always feeling his best. He says there are still moments of struggle, but continuing to be open about it has impacted him positively.
Ham says he wants all players and fans to hear his message and know that he understands the struggles they're going through.
Having the ability to share his message with others is something he takes seriously.
"We are football players, we are athletes, but we're so much more than that," he said. "God has given me this platform, to where I am right now, to be able to shine light on bigger topics that this world needs to hear and really needs to lean into."
He wants kids to know they're not alone if they are feeling the way he was and he wants to encourage others with a platform to speak out and normalize the conversations.
Ham is entering his sixth NFL season as an undrafted player taken by the Vikings in 2016. He made the Pro Bowl in 2019.