How Carson Daly Leads the Charge to Destigmatize Mental Health

Carson Daly

Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Since 2018, TV host Carson Daly has been speaking out about mental health.

While hosting the TODAY Show, Daly shared his struggle with general anxiety disorder. His reveal was prompted by a segment that aired on TODAY about NBA player Kevin Love, who detailed a panic attack he experienced during an NBA game.

“[I] had never read that or seen that or quite frankly heard anybody so famous talk about it, and I experienced one myself. I told my colleagues at work while we were watching this piece on air, ‘Guys, this was me. This happened to me at MTV,’” says Daly.

When Love’s segment ended, a colleague of Daly’s prompted him to share his experience with the TODAY audience, and he did. Daly talked about how for more than 10 years he lived with generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. He also discussed how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helped him find balance.

“I just started talking about it without even thinking…it was taboo. I guess I’m a pretty open person when I’m on television or not,” he says.

When the show ended, Daly immediately received positive feedback from the public. 

“I was happy to talk about it, but I couldn’t believe the reaction it got. I already got the sense that, wow, this was a conversation that people really appear to be thirsty for more of,” says Daly.

He credits some of the response to the notoriety he built with fans over the years as a host on MTV, The Voice, and TODAY.

“I must seem like a childhood friend, like a trusted source if you will,” says Daly. “I think me being so open about such a taboo topic was refreshing for a lot of people because I think they were like ‘well if that guy from MTV who played all those 'N Sync music videos for me in my childhood, if he deals with these mental health things, then I can too.’”

Opening up about his experience inspired him to stand up to the stigma.

I don’t buy into the stigma at all. I actually look at my mental health journey as one of the strong points of my life and there’s so much positive that comes from it as well as the negative.

Committing to Advocacy

One of Daly’s passions is hosting “Mind Matters,” an ongoing TODAY series dedicated to sharing powerful mental health stories of everyday people and how they cope. The stories appear across the TODAY broadcast,, and the TODAY All Day streaming platform.

Daly has helped create over 20 segments on a wide range of topics related to mental health including homelessness, eating disorders, and issues facing the Black community. Some of the interviews he conducted include Peloton instructor Kendall Toole about suicide, former Ohio State University football player Harry Miller about depression, and Darius Smith, cofounder of Black Space, which offers free group therapy sessions with communities of color in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“I love hosting those shows,” says Daly. “I book people from all walks of life to have a discussion about mental health, really shining a light, almost like my late-night show that I used to do with bands and celebrities, now I do it with people who have stories to tell who are doing the tough work in the trenches on mental health.”

He also serves on the Board of Directors for Project Healthy Minds, a nonprofit organization which focuses on breaking the barriers that prevent people from getting support and treatment for mental health.

“[Finding] mental health services should be as easy these days as booking an airline ticket or getting an Uber with technology,” says Daly. “[If] you make the great leap of faith and ask for help, that help should be readily available and it should be culturally relevant help—it should be all of those things.”

A Message for Men and Fathers

While Daly speaks out for all people, he has a special message for men. He is hopeful that the country is in the midst of redefining what strength means.

[The] new being strong is being vulnerable…There is strength in your struggle.

For instance, he appreciates men in the NFL spreading mental health awareness. 

“We look at NFL players like these gladiators on Sunday who are impenetrable to pain; they’re the man so they can’t be hurt, they can’t get hurt and yet there’s so many leaders in that space who are willing enough to talk about their mental health journeys and they own it,” says Daly. “There’s so much power in that because there are so many millions of young men that see that.”

He was moved by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who recently spoke out about his brother’s death by suicide.

“[There] were a few ESPN critics who said, ‘he’s America’s team quarterback. He shouldn’t talk about that, he shouldn’t cry on camera. It shows he’s weak’ and it was so nice to see so many people not take that side and say ‘No, I think it’s great that he was vulnerable and talked about it,’” says Daly.

As a father, he aims to exemplify a similar openness with his four children. “It’s a big conversation in my house with my kids. They obviously see the work that I do publicly in the mental health advocacy space talking about it. I talk to them about it,” he says.

When his 8-, 10- and 14-year-old kids come home from school, the first thing he says to them is “tell me one good thing that happened today and one bad thing that happened in school today.” 

“It just gets their little brains going and it’s kind of a starter, it’s a little conversation piece,” says Daly. Their responses prompt further conversation about why something was bad or good.

“[A] lot of that stuff is just getting communications going with your children, which a lot of parents may have a tough time doing,” he says.

As a dad of three girls, he puts particular emphasis on opening the lines of communication.

“[I] make sure they know that they can come to dad and talk about literally anything that’s going on in their mind or their body. It normalizes it,” Daly says. “[It’s] all just good communication, which generationally hasn’t always been so strong, hopefully it’s getting stronger.”

Impacting the Future of Mental Health

When Daly thinks about the state of mental health, the fact that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years strikes him hard.

“If I was playing basketball and twisted my ankle, how long would it take me to go to urgent care to see if I sprained it? If I’ve broken it? It would take me 5 minutes,” he says. “We look at our physical health much differently than we look at our mental health, unfortunately.”

Stigma and feeling like mental health issues are a sign of weakness are the reasons behind this, he adds. 

People are worried that their friends are going to think they’re crazy if they’re on [medication]. They don’t want their employers to know about it. They don’t want their circle of friends and their neighborhoods to know about it, so there is this great stigma that I feel like needs to be broken.

While the pandemic helped break some of the stigma due to celebrities and public figures talking about loneliness, isolation, and other mental health challenges, he hopes the conversation continues into everyday life.

The workplace is one area he thinks the conversation can go a long way.

“I think companies need to step up. We need leaders in the space to take mental health on,” he says.

For instance, Daly took part in first-ever town hall on mental health for the investment company BlackRock, which has 18,000 employees worldwide. The company’s CEO Larry Fink asked him to speak.

“[It] was great and [Larry]—unscripted—came in and offered some things in his own life and led in that regard. I think it takes people like that to lead on this topic,” says Daly.

In the near future, he hopes work is an environment where people feel comfortable having conversations with their managers and leaders without having to worry about negative consequences.

An Ongoing Struggle That Takes Work

While Daly has lived with generalized anxiety disorder and mild panic for more than 15 years, and has learned to manage it, he still prioritizes caring for himself with cognitive behavioral therapy.

“It’s help me immensely to understand the model of anxiety. To understand that it’s a real thing…to understand…there is some nature and nurture,” he says. “I lost my father when I was young. I have a host of things in my past that probably make up who I am.”

He also leans on daily exercise and meditation. He uses the Calm app to engage in a daily 8-minute breathing exercise.

“I used to watch people on the Today Show come on and say ‘if you’re feeling anxious, just breath and do the box breathing’ and I would be like…if you have real anxiety, you can’t even focus to breathe,” says Daly.

After practicing it for a while, he got hooked.

He also practices muscle tension relaxation therapy, which involves tensing your muscles and then relaxing them in order to retrain your brain to remember what baseline relaxation feels like.

“That was really helpful to me to kind of calm down.” says Daly.

His latest strategy is hot and cold therapy. He jumps in 40-degree water for 3 minutes every day. 

“It keeps me really sharp and really calm and my resting heart rate is like 58, which is really low,” he says. “Cold water is really an incredible thing for people who have a nervous mind.” While he has a cold plunge at home, he says a cold shower can have the same effect.

His go-to for caring for his mental health also includes people. While he’s close to his family, he says talking with others about their mental journeys is therapeutic.

However, because not everyone is comfortable talking about their mental health in public or with their nearest and dearest, he says finding a person that makes sense to you is what matters.

“The point of all of this is the people who are suffering in silence aren’t talking about it. It’s a weird conversation to have and if they do then they think people are going to think they are crazy or something, but just talking about it makes you feel so much better, so it’s really [about] finding anybody.”

By Cathy Cassata
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people.