The Not Great At All Depression

by September 11, 2008

I know it’s not realistic to expect people to treat mental illness with the same regard that they treat physical illness but its still shocking to hear the negativity spewing from people mouths in regards to Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young. To recap–after Sunday’s game against Jacksonville, (a game in which Young struggled mightily, was booed and injured) he was scheduled to have a MRI on Monday. He balked at getting one, prompting head coach Jeff Fisher to make an house call (bringing with him a psychologist who later expressed concern to the Titans organization about his well-being). Young then left his home without his cell phone, creating a situation in which the team contacted the local police as a precaution.

Young’s mom made a statement the following day in which she also expressed concern about his state of mind. This on the heels from reports during the summer saying Young was contemplating retirement. While nothing definitive has been stated by the team concerning Young’s future, reaction by fans and the media has been largely negative. In the few days since this story broke all I’ve heard are talks about his career being over and that this sort of behavior is unacceptable in pro football. I’m not here to pass judgment, well, I take that back. I will judge those who make blanket ignorant statements, advising them to educate themselves on the struggles of mental illness before commenting on what someone else can or cannot do. It seems that, generally, people view mental health problems differently from say a broken leg or a sore back. People will not acknowledge nor respect mental anguish of any kind. Especially from men and even less from pro athletes who we assume have perfect lives and are unworthy of our pity or concern (it’s more widespread than you may think–Ricky Williams, Eddie Griffin, Chamique Holdsclaw and Terry Bradshaw are just some of the names of current or former pro athletes who have been diagnosed with depression). Hopefully this can serve as the initial starting point but expect more stories like this from me in the near future.

For more insight I reached out to author and mental health advocate Terrie Williams, who recently met with Eagles offensive lineman Shawn Andrews (who because of his recent bout with depression was late to training camp and initially was greeted with un-open arms by teammates) who offered these words via an excerpt from her latest book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting: Real Talk For When There’s No Place To Go But Up (Scribner, 2008)

A depressed Black man doesn’t necessarily
look like he’s “down in the
dumps,” “cryin’ the blues,” or any of the other
cliches we use to describe what depression looks
like. A depressed Black man might be the most
energetic man you know, a ball of fire who never
stops moving or doing, whether or not the moving
gets him anywhere or the doing does anything. A
depressed Black man might be accomplished in all
kinds of socially acceptable areas (career, church,
sports, school), or he might be the kind of man
who can’t stop making everything worse for himself and anyone who
loves him. What most depressed men have in common, and depressed
Black men in particular, is that they will do anything not to wind up
sitting with unbearable feelings. That’s why it’s so often underlying
depression: that unexplored and not talked about pain that underlies
the destructive and self-destructive actions in the lives of way too
many of our brothers.

How many? Well, according to statistics, only 9 percent of men
have suffered or will ever suffer from depression—but statistics are
only just so accurate. They never tell more than a small part of the
story. In Terrence Real’s powerful book on men and depression, I
Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of
Male Depression, he argues, as I do, that men are suffering from
depression at rates far higher than statistics show. When I look at our
community and I see our brothers dying every day from violence or
heart attacks or drugs or disease, or wasting the best years of their
lives in prison, I know these men are not well in their souls. These men
are not making suicidal choices because they’ve sat down and calmly
reasoned it out; nobody has ever said, “I could go to school, have a
career, make a decent living, marry a woman I love, and build a home
and a family with her, but I’ve thought about it a lot and I know I’ll be
happier if I drop out, do drugs, sell drugs, gangbang, make babies I
can’t support, spend half my life in prison, or just get killed.” But when
society (in the form of poor housing, non-real health care, unchecked
crime, education barely worthy of the name, and welfare programs
that are hard to get off) doesn’t support those choices for those
unlucky enough to be born into its urban poor—when it often works
directly against the things we might think of as wise and humane
choices—it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many choose against their
own best interests, against themselves, so many times a day, every
day of the week. The truth is that these men are deeply depressed,
so deeply they can’t even name it. And the horror is that it’s so
secret they can’t even tell themselves.

So much of my drive to write this book comes from the belief,
grounded in faith, that if I am not well, you are not well, and if you are
not well, I am not well. Our brothers are not well, and something has
to be done. We must help them name their pain so that they stop visiting denial, abuse, and destructiveness on themselves and those around