Here’s how I hoped to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month: I wanted to reflect on my last major depression and write about the past four years I’ve spent in recovery. I’d speak on the ups and downs, the inevitable setbacks, but praise the community I’ve been able to build to help me through the most difficult thing I’ve faced in my life. I wanted to expend massive amounts of energy lavishing praise on my friend Bassey Ikpi and her organization The Siwe Project, because she didn’t just save me, she’s trying to open up dialogue about mental health here and abroad that will save thousands and millions more. I really just wanted to talk about the hope of a new day.
But on May 2, former NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide, and I realized at this moment we can’t afford rosy platitudes. We need a little screaming and hell-raising.
Seau spent 20 years establishing himself as one of the best and most popular linebackers to play the game of football, and with a gunshot wound to chest became the second former NFL player in less than two weeks to take his own life. Ray Easterling, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s, shot and killed himself in April of this year, ending his fight with depression linked to the head injuries he sustained during his career. It was just last year that Dave Duerson, who played 11 years in league with the Chicago Bears, shot himself in the chest, similar to Seau, and left a note requesting his brain be donated to science in order that the effects of football on the human brain be studied. Duerson may have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that first entered public consciousness after the suicide of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters in 2006.
It’s not just those who have left the league, either. In the fall of 2010, 23 year-old Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley was found dead in his home from suicide. And it’s not just the NFL, either. Over the past year, three former hockey players, Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard, all committed suicide. What has the sports world done in response? Mourn, certainly, but as far as addressing the issue of depression and other mental health problems in any substantive way, the response has been exactly what caused the predicament in the first place: silence.
We like to think of our sports heroes as superhuman and mental illnesses as personal weaknesses, it’s no wonder we refuse to treat them with any seriousness. And why don’t these guys come forward before it’s too late? Consider Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest. He was ridiculed when he admitted to having seen a psychiatrist and now is villainized when he has a setback in journey toward wellness. If this is the type of “support” one can expect for their honesty, why would anyone ever admit to a mental illness?
But this isn’t a problem limited to the world of sports. Keep in mind, it wasn’t that long ago that the legendary Soul Train creator Don Cornelius committed suicide. I’ve only mentioned the names of those who have gained our attention due to their fame. This is an everyday occurrence for people we will never meet, yet their families must mourn their loss in obscurity. It’s even in our military, our biggest patriotic symbol, where the number of suicides has increased has reached unprecedented levels. We are at crisis levels, yet continue to act as if the only way to solve the problem lies in ignoring those who need us the most.
If our personal ambivalence toward the idea of mental illness being a serious and treatable condition were all we were up against, I may find reason to believe that it’s just a matter of changing the dialogue. But as that bleeds over into policy, where budgets are slashed and mental health facilities are the first to go, it’s clear we need an entire societal change to take place. We have to learn to care, desire to act, and invest in our mental health on a grand scale. It’s not enough for those living with mental illnesses to seek out small communities to hold them up through the arduous times. The community should consist of everyone.
Suicide is not the easy way out. It’s not a sign of weakness, or surrender, or a detachment from God. This isn’t something that you can simply pray away or tough out. It’s a final symptom of a disease that can and should be treated. We have to know that before we can move forward with anything else.
I wanted to spend Mental Health Awareness Month speaking about the triumphs. Instead, I’ll spend it, like many others, mourning the loss of an NFL great, and all the other folks who have taken their lives whose names I’ll never know. And I’ll fight to make sure we never forget them. Mental illness doesn’t make one weak, but there’s also no strength in silence. It’s time we made a whole lot more noise.
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