Trenni Kusnierek: Understanding Athletes' Mental Health Struggles, and Her Own

Feb 9, 2016

You couldn't blame sports anchor and Milwaukee area native Trenni Kusnierek for being a bit apprehensive about speaking publicly on her struggles with depression and anxiety. After all, the sports world in which she plies her trade thrives on an image of strength. Kusnierek worried about what she might hear from her new bosses at Comcast SportsNet New England. Or her viewers. Or the athletes she covered.

But when she told her story in a 2012 Milwaukee Magazine article, something unexpected happened. "Social media being what it is," she says, "I thought at the very least there would be a handful of people in my Twitter mentions or that would email me at work, or comment on the article saying something terrible and nasty."

But that didn't happen. "I don't think I encountered one negative comment. Not one person said, 'You you're just crazy, it's all in your head,' or 'You shouldn't put her on the air.'"

And so, encouraged by this reaction, Kusnierek has, in the years since, become a public advocate for increased understanding of others facing mental health challenges - including some of the athletes she covers.

Kusnierek updated her own story in personal essay in February's Milwaukee Magazine.

Trenni Kusnierek now advocates for others suffering from anxiety and depression.
Credit Comcast Sportsnet New England

"If there's one thing that's changed about me," she says, "I think I've become a more empathetic person." She points to athletes whose lives are spiraling out of control - such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel - and says there's a key ingredient missing from the typical discussion these athletes engender. 

"He's at a depth that is so low that he would rather die than get help," Kusnierek says. And she believes that's typical for people dealing with profound mental health issues. "There's such an amount of shame and guilt around your disease. You don't just turn to alcohol and drugs just because.  There's something that often triggers it."

But for all of her increased empathy and understanding, Kusnierek also knows the climate in professional sports hasn't fully responded to the mental health challenges athletes face. "At the end of the day, professional athletes - they're regular human beings," she says, "and they struggle with things other human beings struggle with - be it depression, anxiety, addiction or even cancer. And the only one out of all of those that people ever seem to have a real empathy for is something like cancer."

The good news for Trenni Kusnierek is that people continue to like her work, and she says, she feels like her employers have her back, as well. And at the same time, she's been in a position to support some of her colleagues. "I've had a lot of broadcasters and writers and reporters approach me and say, 'listen, I don't feel comfortable talking about it publicly, but I struggle with anxiety.' Or, 'my son is going through this - how can I help him feel like he's not so alone?'"

And that role, Kusnierek says, may be the best result of an interview she gave more than three years ago.