Facing Mental Illness: My Hero, Terry Bradshaw

Jessica DAnalyst IJuly 30, 2009

BEVERY HILLS - MAY 13:  (L - R) Kita S. Curry, Ph.D., President/CEO of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center, and Terry Bradshaw, NFL Hall of Famer/Television Host speak during the Erasing The Stigma Leadership Awards 2005 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on May 13, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. Bradshaw was honored at the event.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

For NFL fans, Terry Bradshaw is a household name.

Drafted as the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft out of Louisiana Tech, Bradshaw played quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1970-1983. In a span of six years, he won four Super Bowl titles.

Bradshaw also led his team to eight AFC Central championships. He's a two-time Super bowl MVP, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and in his first eligible year in 1989, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Terry Bradshaw also has clinical depression. He was diagnosed in 1999.

He takes medication to properly balance the serotonin in his brain.

"When you're clinically depressed the serotonin in your brain is out of balance and probably always will be out of balance. So I take medication to get that proper balance back. I'll probably have to be on it the rest of my life."

He's not alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, over 20 million American adults suffer from depressive disorders, with women suffering almost at twice the rate as men.

These illnesses include major depressive disorder—often called clinical depression—dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder. Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States.

"Depression is a physical illness," states Bradshaw. "The beauty of it is that there are medications that work. Look at me. I'm always happy-go-lucky, and people look at me and find it shocking that I could be depressed."

After his NFL career ended, Bradshaw was finally able to escape the stigma of mental illness in the league (and that's for another article), and communicate about his clinical depression. He disclosed that he frequently experienced anxiety attacks after games.

The problem worsened when Terry went through his third divorce in 1999. He could no longer bounce back from his depression like he did with his previous two divorces, or a bad game.

This realization of no control, as I call it, can happen to sufferers of mental illness at any time. For me, I lost control during my freshman year of high school. Even though Bradshaw suffered it much later than me, it is no less raw.

When Bradshaw broke down, his symptoms included weight loss, frequent crying, and sleeplessness. Since he started taking the anti-depressant Paxil, his symptoms have become much more manageable.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression include:

• Persistent sadness and/or anxiety

• Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness

• Anhedonia—loss of interest or pleasure in enjoyable activities, including sex

• Decreased energy or fatigue

• Concentration and/or memory problems and difficulty making decisions

• Insomnia or oversleeping

• Appetite changes, weight loss or weight gain

• Suicidal thoughts; suicide attempts

"It's hard for me to put into words the horrific feeling of being depressed," the Hall of Famer has said. "It is the most sickening feeling in the world when you believe you are miserable and you're all alone."

Like many people struggling with depression, before being diagnosed, Bradshaw drank to self-medicate.

"I was drinking a lot, and I didn't like the path I was on," Bradshaw admits. "I was frightened by what might happen. I wasn't sure if I was going to drink myself to death."

Bradshaw confided in a preacher, who was able to give him his first guidance. He began the process of finding professionals (therapist, psychologists) to help him.

Readers should know that medication alone cannot be the "magic bullet" for the mentally ill. Talk therapy is another invaluable tool that helps those with depression cope with their feelings and find constructive ways to deal with them.

Despite depression being the second-most disabling illness in the world, far too few people seek and find help for it. As a sufferer of bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, I have taken Terry's example and become proactive in my quest to get better. It's not easy for Bradshaw, me, or anyone with mental illness, but it has to be done.

Taking charge of your mental illness can be very empowering.

If you are suffering from depression, and it has lasted for more than two weeks, and includes many of the symptoms above, you should probably see your family doctor. Your doctor can then refer you to a therapist, or psychiatrist, or both. If you do not have a family doctor, please seek help at NAMI.org.

If you ever feel like you might hurt yourself or others, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

My hope is that those with mental illness can find strength in Terry Bradshaw's story. He has not only become an NFL legend while living with his depression, but has become a successful broadcaster and a great father.

Letting go of the fear of being judged can be tough. Be a friend to someone with mental illness, and see what a difference a friend makes.

Thank you Terry, for everything.

For more mental illness and sports articles, please stay tuned.