Athletes, who have spent years fine-tuning their bodies, find it difficult
to accept mental illness and its stigma
By Patrick Saunders
Denver Post Sports Writer
Monday, March 10, 2003 - Bipolar disorder.
The demons running loose inside Barret Robbins' head put the Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl center in a San Diego hospital on Super Bowl Sunday. The physical power of his 6-foot-3, 320-pound body was no match for the illness.
Spiraling into shadows so dark she thought she'd never get out, former U.S. Olympic diver Wendy Williams once collapsed in front of her refrigerator, overwhelmed by something as simple as deciding what to eat. She quit getting into her car for fear she would drive off a cliff to escape her misery.
According to a U.S. Surgeon General's report in 2001, nearly 8 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers a disorder caused by bad brain chemistry. More than 20 million Americans will suffer major depression in their lifetime.
Like anyone else, athletes can be ravaged by the emotional and physical toll that comes with depression. Worse, athletes' reluctance to deal with their condition, the jock environment that makes them ashamed of their perceived "weakness," and physical side effects brought on by medication add up to the most troublesome foe they will ever face.
"As athletes, we are taught to be tough," said former NHL all-star Pat LaFontaine, who has battled depression. "You get up and shake it off. But you can't do that with depression. For me, the harder I tried, the worse it got."
A 2001 survey conducted by the National Mental Health Association found that though progress has been made in the public's understanding of depression, stigma surrounding the disease remains.
In 1991, 38 percent recognized depression as an illness. In 2001, 55 percent of those surveyed who had never been diagnosed with depression understood depression is a disease, and not "a state of mind that a person can snap out of."
However, a 1999 survey by the NMHA found that 63 percent of African-Americans view depression as a character flaw.
Mental illness still carries a cloak of shame.
It took Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kendall Gill months to accept his clinical depression, even though two doctors told him the chemical imbalance in his brain was responsible for his confusion, lethargy and dark moods during his stint with the Seattle SuperSonics.
According to Dr. April Stein, elite athletes have an especially difficult time coming to grips with mental illness.
"Athletes are always supposed to be strong and above reproach," she said. "Depression and other mental disorders impact their view of themselves. It is not something they want to face or accept."
As a staff psychologist at the renowned Menninger Psychiatric Hospital in Topeka, Kan., Stein has treated many high-profile athletes.
When an athlete's world starts spinning out of control, it's hard to stop the free fall because there is often a lack of understanding.
Richard Lustberg, a Ph.D. and sports psychologist, said athletes can understand a blown-out knee, but dealing with mental and emotional injury is more difficult.
"If the oil and lube job in their mind isn't working, they have a tough time dealing with that," Lustberg said. "It's not something they can see, or fix easily, like a bone sticking out of their leg. So they don't understand it."
In LaFontaine's case, while playing for Buffalo in 1996, a savage blow to the head left him with a severe concussion. That led to severe migraine headaches, depression, sleepless nights, confusion and wild mood swings. The bottom fell out when he realized that hockey no longer mattered.
And even though LaFontaine's symptoms continued to worsen, and it was clear from his ashen complexion and his sudden lack of passion that something was seriously wrong, a number of doctors told him all he needed was rest.
"One neurologist told me, 'You know, I'm sure if you go out and score a couple of goals, you'll feel better and everything will be fine,"' LaFontaine said. "I remember looking at him and saying, 'Doc, I don't care about scoring goals anymore. I'm scared.'
"Now, for someone as competitive as me to stand in front of a doctor and tell him I didn't care about scoring, that really shook me up. I mean, I was the captain of my team. That scared me. I knew I needed help."
A trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., nudged LaFontaine toward recovery. Doctors explained that an injury to LaFontaine's frontal lobe had wreaked havoc on his personality. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
"The doctors told me that my symptoms were very common in anyone who has had head injuries or multiple concussions," LaFontaine said. "I remember one of them saying it was like someone had ripped all of the passion and enthusiasm right out of me."
After months of rest and intensive counseling, LaFontaine returned to hockey. In 1997-98, he played a final season for the New York Rangers, scoring 23 goals in 67 games. Another concussion ended his 15-year career, but at least now he had the tools and understanding to deal with his problems.
But the world of pro sports often doesn't have the patience or compassion to deal with mental illness.
In 1997, pitcher Pete Harnisch was facing a pivotal season with the New York Mets. He was returning from shoulder surgery and back-to-back losing seasons. The heat was on.
Perhaps from the pressure of the season, or nicotine withdrawal in the wake of his decision to quit chewing tobacco, or heredity (his family has a history of depression), Harnisch fell into a deep funk. He lost 40 pounds and could barely muster 10 minutes of exercise.
He approached Mets manager Bobby Valentine and told him he couldn't pitch because he felt shaky and unsure of himself. Valentine did not take the news well. The two feuded and later that season Harnisch was traded to Milwaukee.
Under the auspice of Player Assistance Programs, the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB have systems that provide confidential support for players. Yet on the subject of mental health, a chasm remains between athletes and coaches.
A 2001 study sponsored by the Pfizer drug company and the Women's Sports Foundation found that 96 percent of coaches and 97 percent of athletes said mental health is extremely important to overall performance. That's the good news. However, 85 percent of coaches said their athletes come to talk to them about mental health, though only 68 percent of the athletes said they felt they could go to their coach about such issues.
The Raiders found it difficult to deal with Robbins' bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Raiders officials were aware Robbins had been diagnosed as bipolar and required monitoring, ever since he began treatment in 1996.
During Super Bowl week, Robbins slipped off track.
According to the Chronicle, Robbins stopped taking his medication during summer training camp and his mood became erratic through the course of the season.
The night before the Super Bowl, Robbins was reportedly drinking heavily and talking about killing himself. A day after missing the Super Bowl, Robbins' agent, Drew Pittman, acknowledged that alcohol was a factor in Robbins' problems. According to the National Mental Health Association, more than half of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder have problems with substance abuse.
Last week, Robbins acknowledged he recently spent 30 days in a treatment facility for bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse.
Even though Robbins' teammates knew about his erratic behavior and drinking, the Raiders never told their players he was battling an illness. The team says it was bound by confidentiality laws and could not disclose his illness without written consent from Robbins, or his wife, Marisa.
Many of his teammates had trouble understanding why Robbins went AWOL. Frank Middleton, once one of Robbins' best friends on the team, criticized him three days after the Super Bowl.
"We never knew B-Rob was a depressed guy," Middleton told ESPN Radio. "He always seemed fine to us. Is it true (the bipolar disorder) or is his agent doing some covering up of some of the problems or issues that he had? We're still on the fence right now."
Statements like that, and reports in the media that Robbins was a simply a loose cannon who partied himself out of the Super Bowl, offended and hurt his wife.
"I was so furious at how quick they were to jump on, 'Oh, he's just partying,"' Marisa Robbins told the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.
Since the Super Bowl, Raiders management has said it's open to Robbins returning to the team.
"As an organization, we care about our team and every individual on the team, and sometimes that involves family issues," senior assistant Bruce Allen said last week. "We'll see how this transpires over the next few months. There is no determination on actual the football plane. We're dealing with some other issues that are more pressing than our opening game, in Barret's case."
In a statement released through Pittman, his agent, Robbins said he hopes some good can come out of his Super Bowl nightmare.
"You never think something like this can happen to you, but it did," Robbins said. "I intend to do what I can to help others who suffer from this disease and to raise public awareness of mental illness. It's not something I am proud of but it's not something I am ashamed of either."
Williams, the former Olympian who has been a public spokesperson for the Women's Sports Foundation since 1995, has discovered how to put mental illness in perspective.
"There is an analogy I like to use," Williams said. "If I was diagnosed with diabetes, I wouldn't see it as a personal weakness. Would I be embarrassed about having diabetes? No. So I learned not to be embarrassed about my depression."
It took a long time for Williams to embrace that truth.
She was a golden girl. She was a world platform diving champion and won a bronze medal for the United States in the 1988 Summer Olympics. Three months before the 1992 Olympics, she suffered a spinal injury that forced her to retire. Still, her life seemed idyllic when she moved to Maui, Hawaii, and began a new life as a massage therapist.
Then it all fell apart.
"I had all the signs of depression," she said. "I was sad, couldn't sleep, and I thought of killing myself. I was so tired, so wiped out, I didn't want to do anything. It got to the point where I would look at young children and think, 'Why would anybody have children and bring them into this world?"'
And, like many who suffer with mental illness, Williams thought she could defeat depression without outside help.
"I thought it was all in my own mind," she said. "I thought I could fix it all by myself. I mean, I was this big, strong athlete. I used to work out six hours a day. Before I came to terms with my depression, I always wanted to run the other way. I thought that if I admitted to the disease, it would make me a complete failure."
But the harder she struggled, the further she slid into the abyss.
"My roommate was really worried," Williams said. "He told me I had to go to the doctor. I never would. But one afternoon I hit the bottom. I was at the refrigerator, with the door open and I collapsed. The idea of figuring out what to eat was too much for me. My roommate put me in the car. He literally had to drag me to the doctor."
The diagnosis was swift: Williams had clinical depression. She needed medication. She was having none of that.
"I was a health food nut," she said. "I told him that there was no way I was going to put any chemicals in my body. But the doctor used reverse psychology on me. He said, 'Look, you say you want to die anyway, so what difference does it make?"'
So Williams started taking medication. The first one left her feeling nearly catatonic, she said, so she threw it out. The second medication improved her condition in three days.
"It was a miracle," she said. "It changed my life."
Many athletes struggle physically and emotionally with the drugs.
"Nearly everyone who goes on medication struggles with that, but especially a fine-tuned athlete who is used to feeling at his or her peak," psychologist Stein said. "So some quit taking the medication because they decide the side effects aren't worth it."
The side effects of mood altering drugs can be extensive: sexual dysfunction, headaches, insomnia, lethargy and apathy.
Mental health professionals caution that medications are not an immediate cure-all, and that time, patience and counseling usually are needed.
But with athletes, ego can stand in the way of progress.
"They think, it's not the pill, it's me," Lustberg said. "They say, 'I'm the one who has to fix myself.' So they get off the medication. It's a form of denial. I guarantee you there are a number of athletes out there on medication. But there is still a low level of sophistication out there. There is still a fear level out there about all of this."
That fear is what Williams and LaFontaine hope to extinguish. That's why they have chosen to speak out about their lives.
Said Williams: "The most courageous thing is face it, admit it's a problem, then ask for help."