My family has an extensive history of mental illness. This isn’t an article about my family’s battles with mental illness, though, so I’ll just tell you about my grandfather, who served our country in World War II and returned home to Waldo, Ohio after V Day. Physically he was okay, but mentally he was broken.
He struggled with depression, and the PTSD he brought back from the war eventually claimed his life. He died by suicide shortly after my eighth birthday. He’d waited a couple of weeks after my birthday to end it all, hoping that a little distance from my special day would make it easier for me. It didn’t.
My grandfather had been showing some signs that something was seriously wrong for some time. He’d disappeared three years before for several weeks. He’d traveled to St. Louis, where they were experiencing a historic heat wave in 1980. Elderly folks without air conditioning were dying from the heat. He rented a cheap hotel room and turned off the air, praying for death. He didn’t die. It broke him further.
But on a day-to-day basis in those intervening years, his illness wasn’t visible or obvious. He loved to work in his garden, as he’d loved being outside and planting and growing vegetables and flowers since his early years growing up on my great-grandparents’ farm. He’d sit on his front porch or tend his roses out front and trade gossip with the neighbors he’d known his entire life as they passed by on the sidewalk in front of my grandparents’ home in that tiny town. He tinkered around in the garage, spent quality time with his dog, a pointer named Birdie, went fishing at every single opportunity, and walked to the nearby watering hole with my grandma pretty much daily in the mornings for coffee or in the late afternoons for a fried bologna sandwich and a Pepsi.
During what we later learned was one of his lowest points, he built a three-tiered raised bed in his garden to grow strawberries for me just because I love them. Two weeks before he died, he and my grandma gave me roller skates for my birthday, and he had the best time watching me skate around (and fall a lot) in front of my grandparents’ house. He didn’t look sick. He didn’t act sick. People struggling with mental illness often don’t.
But he was sick, and that sickness took his life.
It didn’t help that this was the early 1980s, and the stigma around mental illness made it much more difficult to seek treatment or get an accurate diagnosis or medical intervention. But even now, nearly 40 years after my grandfather lost his battle with mental illness, we’re still hearing about how Calvin Ridley “doesn’t look like he’s struggling with his mental health.” It’s an ignorant and cruel perspective, and greatly overestimates how good we are at telling when someone is struggling.
First of all, we have no idea what’s happening with Ridley’s mental health or what type of treatment he’s been pursuing. We have no idea what this man is going through, what caused it, what extenuating circumstances he may be dealing with, what kind of support system he has around him, or what his state of mind is. And it would be wildly irresponsible to speculate, so we’re not going to do that here or in the comment section.
What we’re going to do instead is try to educate people about the seriousness of mental illness and the resources that are available to you if you’re struggling. And we’re going to hope the people who don’t get it learn something that makes them a little more empathetic toward those who are struggling.
We’re experiencing a mental health crisis in this country.
All of us have experienced some level of trauma over the past two-plus years. Seeing nearly a million of our countrymen and women die from a novel virus with no end in sight is going to affect us all in some way. The impact of disrupted social life, economic hardship and uncertainty, rampant inflation, and especially the crushing weight of the loss of human life we’ve witnessed, and in many cases personally experienced, have done harm to all of us. You don’t have to have a particular stance, politically or about COVID-19, to have been impacted.
On top of the external factors outside of our control that are contributing to this crisis, securing treatment is a challenge. Even if you have insurance, you may be facing exorbitant co-pays and deductibles. You’ll be limited to treatment providers and facilities covered by your insurance unless you have enough cash to pay for treatment, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month for inpatient care. You may not have the time or feel you can take the time off to get well and get treatment, which is a common response when celebrities announce they are stepping away from their craft to get help, but I hope we can all agree it would be ideal if we did.
In the fall of 2020, I helped a close relative find inpatient treatment for depression and suicidal ideation (the medical term for thinking about, planning, or considering suicide). The two local facilities that accepted their insurance were facing multiple allegations of patient mistreatment and assault. They didn’t feel comfortable going there in such a vulnerable state, but eventually had to choose one of the two because there weren’t other options that were financially viable.
Even finding a counselor or therapist with available appointments is nearly impossible these days, and most people can only afford it if they have insurance and are able to find someone in-network. If you land with a therapist who isn’t the right fit for you, you’ve got to start that process all over again. Antidepressants and mood stabilizers typically take weeks to begin working and often suicidal ideation increases during the early adjustment period, especially for teens and young adults. And these medications are not perfect. It can take a lot of trial and error to find something that actually works for you.
One of the most urgent needs in this country is to make mental healthcare readily available, widely accessible, and affordable whether you’re an NFL player or someone living paycheck to paycheck without insurance.
There are many types of mental illness.
Whether it’s depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, postpartum depression, or any of the other 300+ illnesses and disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), I promise you that you know people who are struggling with their mental health.
Mental illness can be caused or exacerbated by a number of factors. You’re more likely to experience mental illness if you have a blood relative who also struggles with mental illness. I got my grandfather’s sense of humor, his love of the outdoors and of justice, and at least some of his brain chemistry. Maybe your brain chemistry is just a little off, with not enough serotonin or dopamine or both (like me). Maybe you’ve experienced trauma from abuse or other external circumstances, leading to PTSD and causing or exacerbating existing mental illness.
And mental illness can impact literally anyone. Robin Williams. Naomi Osaka. Simone Biles. Lane Johnson. Anthony Bourdain. Michael Phelps. Ben Simmons. Meghan Markle. Hayden Hurst. My grandpa. Me. Countless people I love. And yes, Calvin Ridley.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how successful or talented you are. Just like any other illness, mental illness does not discriminate against anyone. Nobody is immune.
Mental health care is just health care.
The one thing all mental illnesses have in common is that they are illnesses. It’s not weakness. It’s not laziness. It’s not attention-seeking behavior. It’s not something to be embarrassed by, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. People struggling with their mental health are sick, and they deserve the privacy and space and access to the resources and treatment they need to get well.
The brain is part of the body, last I checked. People don’t criticize patients fighting serious physical illnesses for “not looking sick”. Why in the world does anyone think that’s OK for people fighting mental illness? People who are struggling with their mental health deserve to be treated with the same dignity we reserve for people fighting serious physical illnesses.
Mental illness can be extremely deadly. The data below from 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available) is scary as hell.
It’s okay to not be okay
If you’re hurting, if you’re struggling: You’re not alone. I know how painful it is to see people dismissing the seriousness of mental illness, accusing people of lying about it, and mocking people who struggle with it. There are resources available to you if you’re struggling with your mental health.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- And there are lots of illness-specific resources listed here from the Mental Health First Aid website.
I don’t know if Calvin Ridley will be back with the Falcons next season. I don’t know what he’s going through or what’s led to it, and it’s none of my business. We can talk about Calvin Ridley, the Atlanta Falcon and wide receiver, without trying to figure out what’s in his head.
All I know is that I hope he’s okay. I hope he’s surrounded by people who love and support him, and I hope he’s pursuing treatment help him recover and get healthy. I wish this for everyone struggling with their mental health.
Most of all, I hope everyone will give Ridley the space he needs to do that without speculation and cruelty, and without dismissing the seriousness of mental illness. We should all expect the same, and with a collective change in our outlook on mental illness and a push to treat it with the gravity and dignity it deserves, perhaps someday we’ll get there.