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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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He came roaring down the mountain at nearly 85 miles an hour, a blur in an aerodynamic Lycra suit. Headfirst on a sled barely bigger than a cafeteria tray, Jim Shea was inches from rock-hard ice, handling serpentine turns without the benefit of either brakes or a steering wheel. The running joke is that Shea's exhilarating sport, skeleton, got its name for a good reason: One imprecise maneuver and he could be turned into a bag of broken bones. It was the winter of 1999, and when Shea rounded the final curve on his last heat .57 of a second ahead of the next-fastest guy, he was suddenly a world champion. � When coaches and teammates mobbed him on that cold afternoon in Altenberg, Germany, it was as clear as the mountain air that Shea, after thousands of hours spent training and traveling, had reached the pinnacle of his sport. His spot on the U.S. 2002 Winter Olympic team was all but guaranteed. And Shea felt...nothing. "It was total emptiness, like I didn't even care," he recalls. "The joy of winning? I could have broken a world record and won the lottery on the same day and not been happy about it."

The clinical term for this, he later learned, is anhedonia, and Shea relies on weather analogies—"fog," "dark clouds" and persistent "gloom"—to describe the feeling. Still, at the time, Shea found nothing unusual about his lack of emotion in the face of what was, by any measure, a triumph worthy of unbridled joy. Shea's grandfather Jack was a speed skating pioneer who won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics. His father, Jim Sr., competed in the 1964 Games in Nordic combined and cross-country. The men in the Shea family were quiet, tough, bootstrapping types who lived by a Spartan code of stoicism and self-reliance. Emotions were best left bottled up. An uncle's suicide, for instance, was not on the table for discussion. Since Jim had been in elementary school, he'd known there was something preventing him from experiencing emotional crests, an immovable force that kept him mired in lows longer than any of his friends. "But I figured those were the cards I was dealt," he says. "For me it was normal."

A U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist at the training center near San Diego thought otherwise and referred Shea to a local psychiatrist, Michael Lardon, who had worked with dozens of elite athletes. After one session Lardon ran through a checklist of symptoms—persistent sadness, feelings of emptiness, the inability to extract joy from pursuits that should be pleasurable, irregular appetite and sleep patterns, decreased energy—and noted how many applied to Shea. "Jim, listen," the doctor said, "I think you suffer from depression." Shea's reaction was typical of people like him. Me? Depressed? How could that be? I'm an athlete.

It is an invisible incubus that will haunt 19 million Americans this year. One in six people will be affected by it in their lifetimes. It accounts for countless sick days and costs U.S. industry $44 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. Depression is an equal-opportunity affliction, not discriminating according to class or social standing. Among the millions affected: Barbara Bush, Halle Berry and Winston Churchill, who called his depression "my black dog," a companion that seldom left his side.

The list of athletes who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or social anxiety disorder—three of the most common forms of mental illness—would make for a hell of a table at a charity dinner. Ricky Williams, the NFL's 2002 rushing leader, suffered such overwhelming social anxiety that he couldn't bring himself to leave his house to mail a letter. Terry Bradshaw, the star quarterback and irrepressible NFL broadcaster, was once so depressed that he would go to bed crying. On the eve of last January's Super Bowl, Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins neglected to take medication to treat his bipolar disorder, went on a Tijuana drinking jag, considered committing suicide and was in a hospital during what should have been the biggest game of his career. Mike Tyson was in the clutches of depression long before he turned into a pitiable sideshow.

And those are among the few who have come to the public's attention. Innumerable other athletes are familiar with the Via Dolorosa traveled by the PGA golfer who contemplated suicide last summer after failing to make the cut at the Greater Hartford Open. Or the top pick in a recent major league draft whose deep melancholy has forced him to take an indefinite leave from baseball. Or the former NBA All-Star whose decline is widely attributed to alcoholism but who actually suffers from crippling depression. "An amazing number of athletes have these illnesses," says Lardon. "It's way more than you'd ever guess. I mean way more."

But in a culture suffused with testosterone and seldom characterized as either sensitive or progressive, mental illness remains largely stigmatized—and, not surprisingly, largely undiagnosed. "Blow out your knee, get into trouble with the law, fail a drug test, and the team will help you back," says Russ Johnson, a former Tampa Bay Devil Rays infielder whose depression was diagnosed last year and who now plays for the Mets' Triple A affiliate. "Suffer a mental or emotional injury, and it's a big mark against you."

In the U.S. more than twice as many women as men suffer from depression. Since there is little evidence that brain chemistry is markedly different between genders, many believe that women are simply more attuned to their emotions and more likely to seek treatment. Anecdotally—no statistics are kept on how many athletes suffer from or seek treatment for depression—the sports world seems to mirror society at large. Though the majority of professional athletes are men, some of the most high-profile jocks to speak openly about their struggles with depression have been women. Julie Krone, the Hall of Fame jockey, was so up-front about her battle with depression that she landed an endorsement deal with Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft. In her autobiography, Picabo: Nothing to Hide, gold medal skier Picabo Street wrote about the depression she endured while rehabbing from a gruesome knee injury. Los Angeles Sparks point guard Nikki Teasley, the MVP of this summer's WNBA All-Star Game, says of her depression, "It's part of who I am."

But for half a century, since baseball player Jimmy Piersall achieved notoriety after suffering a nervous breakdown, the sports world has remained largely in the dark on matters of mental health. "If you go into a locker room, there's no faster way to alienate yourself than by saying the word psychobgy," says John Murray, a Miami-based clinical psychologist who treats athletes. "It's definitely a taboo, and we can only speculate why."

Perhaps it's because males in general (and alpha males in particular) are much less likely than women to acknowledge their mental illness. Perhaps it's because of the enduring misconception that mental illness somehow indicates inner weakness—a sentiment that, according to the National Mental Health Association, is particularly common in the African-American community, from which a disproportionate number of athletes hail. Or perhaps it's because mental illness, unlike a broken bone or a torn rotator cuff, doesn't readily appear on an X-ray or an MRI.

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