Mentally ill still subject to contempt
When an Eagle admitted he suffers from depression, the bashing began.So how far has America come in taking the shame and stigma out of mental illness? Not very far, at least if the acknowledgment by the Philadelphia Eagles' All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews that he suffers from a mental illness is an indication.
The 335-pound Andrews, who refers to himself as the 'Big Kid,' had not shown up at the Eagles' Lehigh University training camp. No one seemed to know why.
There was talk of a contract holdout. Some suggested Andrews was out of shape. Some of his teammates expressed a lot of irritation that he was not there slogging out exhausting two-a-day practices in the summer heat and humidity, wondering if maybe he just did not want to go through the misery that is an NFL training camp.
Finally Andrews, deeply hurt by all the speculation, broke his silence. He told reporters for The Inquirer and Daily News that he was battling depression.
"I'm willing to admit that I've been going through a very bad time with depression," Andrews said this week in his first public comments about his training camp absence. "I've finally decided to get professional help. It's not something that blossomed up overnight. I'm on medication, trying to get better."
So what was the reaction to Andrews' admission that he has a disabling mental illness keeping him out of training camp?
You would have thought that this giant of a young man had announced that he had stayed out of camp because he was a lazy, overindulged ingrate who just did not happen to feel like playing football right now.
Talk radio in Philadelphia and around the country exploded in anger at the very idea that being sad - the talk-radio interpretation of depression - could keep you out of camp.
There was a fair amount of bashing of mental-health treatment, too, as sports talk hosts dismissed the treatment of anyone with depression as a lot of psychobabble for the rich and the spoiled. One Philadelphia sports talk host wondered why - since all psychiatrists are crazy - anyone would seek treatment from one.
It is not known what Andrews had told his coach, his agent, or the general manager of the team about his illness. But it is possible that, suffering from severe depression, which often means being confined to your house, unable to muster the energy to talk to anyone, much less eat or bathe, that he did not provide many details.
The team was fining the football player tens of thousands of dollars for his absence - a stance presumably they may want to reconsider.
But, the bigger question is: Why is it so hard for us to accept mental illness as being just as disabling and devastating as a physical injury?
Inherent in the nutty reaction to the admission of a football hero that he has a severe mental problem lies the explanation of why we have allowed our system of mental health to fall apart. Mental illness is so humiliating, so embarrassing, that individuals, whether they are in the NFL or on the assembly line, don't want to talk about it.
Families are ashamed when one of their own cannot function because of depression, schizophrenia, addiction or psychosis. The media simply reinforce the shame of mental illness with headlines that scream of nut houses, kooks and looney-bins when a celebrity heads off for mental-health treatment.
No one would dream of calling someone with cancer a malingerer or a deadbeat. But, admit that you have a hard time working because you are depressed, cannot leave your house because you are phobic, or find it difficult to show up at holidays with your family because you are not sure you can control your eating disorder, and just watch the insults fly.
Mental illness is for too many Americans a form of moral failure, whereas physical illness is the result of bad genes, bad luck, or bad working environments.
Unless we can get past dismissing mental illness as the product either of a lack of willpower or a lack of character, we don't stand a chance of helping those and their families who must suffer, often in silence, with the shame and stigma.
The United States barely has much of a mental-health system left. Beyond taking a pill, there is not a whole lot available in most parts of the country if you, your parent or your child suffers from depression or any other severely disabling mental illness.
If an NFL star can barely bring himself to publicly admit that he has a mental illness, then what chance do the rest of us have? And if a bruising NFL football player's admission of a mental illness elicits little except scorn, derision and contempt, then what chance do others with mental illness have of getting the help they need?
Crazy as it may seem - not much.