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Prisoners of Depression
L. Jon Wertheim
September 08, 2003
Mental illness still carries a powerful stigma in pro sports, but there are signs that teams are finally facing the problem and trying to help troubled athletes
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September 08, 2003

Prisoners Of Depression

Mental illness still carries a powerful stigma in pro sports, but there are signs that teams are finally facing the problem and trying to help troubled athletes

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Apart from simply doing the right thing, teams would benefit financially if they were more attentive to players' mental health. Just ask the NFL franchise that recently lavished millions on a high-profile quarterback without, a team source says, giving him a basic psychiatric evaluation. When the player acted erratically—behavior subsequently attributed to untreated bipolar disorder-he was released, and the team swallowed the bulk of his contract. "We're not nearly as thorough [as we should be] about mental history," says the general manager of a team in the NBA's Eastern Conference. "We—and I think we're like most teams-interview guys and give a personality test [which is not intended or able to diagnose depression or anxiety disorders], but we're probably not comprehensive enough. Maybe if we get burned, that will change."

The wheels of change do turn in sports, however slowly. In interviews, nine mental health experts who treat athletes unanimously asserted that disorders of the mind are gradually shedding their stigma in sports. In some cases the shift in attitude is merely a matter of semantics. When Murray was doing his doctoral work, he approached the soccer coach at one university and asked if he could consult the team on matters of sports psychology. "He wouldn't even listen to me—I had said the magic word, psychology" says Murray. "Then I came back a while later and called what I was doing 'mental coaching,' and he got all excited." Similarly, Lardon stresses to his athlete-patients that depression is "an imbalance in brain chemistry," so it is less abstract and subjective. When appropriate, he shows patients their brain scans, giving them tangible evidence of a problem, not unlike an X-ray revealing a cracked rib.

When Lardon diagnosed Shea's depression, the athlete went on the defensive. "Prove to me that I'm depressed," Shea snapped. But it was a facade. He was relieved to hear what Lardon told him. Lardon said that in three out of four cases, depression is treatable with medication. After some trial and error, they settled on Effexor XR, which inhibits the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that affect mood. "Right away," says Shea, "I noticed a big change in achieving general day-to-day happiness."

The big test came in January 2002. The Salt Lake City Games were less than three weeks away, and Shea was trying to treat a nagging injury to his left leg. Late one night he received word that his 91-year-old grandfather had been killed by a drunken driver. Lardon knew that such news could plunge Shea back into depression. He and Shea spoke often in the days before the Games and were able, as Lardon puts it, "to integrate Granddad's death in a positive way instead of catastrophizing it." Which is to say, Shea put a photo of his grandfather in his helmet. During the Olympics, Jack Shea wouldn't be in the stands, as the family had planned, but he could ride down the mountain with his grandson.

The rest became the stuff of Olympic lore. Shea was chosen by his U.S. teammates to take the Athletes' Oath at the opening ceremony, just as Jack had done 70 years earlier, and Jim went on to win the gold by .05 of a second. In one of the enduring images of the 2002 Games, Shea's first reaction after looking at his winning time was to pluck Jack's photo from his helmet and, obscured by falling snow, wave it tearfully. It was as if all the joy and emotion that he had missed in his first 33 years of life had suddenly flooded him.

Basking in the afterglow of Olympic victory, Shea figured he had also defeated his depression, so he stopped taking his Effexor XR. Literally overnight, his feelings of despondency came screaming back. He promptly went back on his medication, and now, before going to bed every night, he pops a small beige capsule.

As Shea prepares for the 2006 Games, he marvels at how different the experience is this time around. Part of it is his status as the defending gold medalist. But that pales in comparison to the change in his mental health. The fog that enshrouded him? It's lifted. The jock culture that had long considered depression an earmark of weakness? "Listen, unless you've been there, you have no idea," Shea says. "Winning a gold medal is the ultimate. But I wouldn't trade happiness for it. Not in a million years."

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