Thursday, February 1, 2018

Sharing the Same Passion

This week I had to opportunity to speak with Keith O'Neil. If you don't know his name already, let me tell you a little about his accomplishments.

Keith grew up in Amherst, New York. He comes from a family that is passionate about football. His father is former NFL linebacker Ed O'Neil, and his brother Keven played football for Syracuse University.   

Keith's own football talent was evident by high school. In college at Northern Arizona University, he was a four-year letterman and three-year starter with 225 career stops, 20 sacks, 49 tackles for losses, and three interceptions.

In 2003, O'Neil entered the NFL when he was signed by the Dallas Cowboys. He played with the Cowboys for two seasons.

Following playing for the Cowboys, O'Neil played for the Indianapolis Colts. In 2006, he earned a Super Bowl ring when the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

I have a great deal of admiration for Keith for many reasons. Though impressive, it's not his athletic accomplishments that are chief among my reasons. I admire Keith because of who he is as a person. I admire him because of his courage and his advocacy.
I admire Keith O'Neil because recently he posted this on his Twitter page:

Keith O'Neil has bipolar disorder. Over the past decade, he has become a vocal advocate for the mentally ill, devoting himself to ending stigma and to helping fund critically needed research. I was excited when Keith offered to share his story with me. 
I'm happy to share with you what Keith has to say about living with bipolar disorder. 

Keith first began experiencing symptoms when he was a child, but he didn't understand what was going on. He'd have insomnia at night when he was anxious, and then there'd be days when he was so depressed, it was difficult for him to get up and do things. Those around him didn't recognize that he was beginning to struggle with bipolar. He was often given the message that he just needed to settle down, or that he just needed to stop 'lying around.'

As a young adult and despite realizing his dream of playing for the NFL, he still struggled. After his first season with the Dallas Cowboys, he told head coach Bill Parcells about his anxiety and insomnia - both hallmarks of the manic side of bipolar. At the time, Keith thought the best thing for him to do would be to retire from professional football. However, Parcells and the team said that they would do their best to get Keith the help he needed so that he could continue playing. 

Two years later, he moved on to play for the Indianapolis Colts, but his bipolar symptoms resurfaced. His anxiety became so hard to manage that four days before opening day he again reached out for help, this time from head coach Tony Dungy.

However, without a clear diagnosis, Keith continued to suffer. Eventually he stopped playing altogether. At one point he felt so despondent, he attempted suicide.

It wasn't until he was 30 years old that he was finally diagnosed as bipolar. Given the diagnosis, suicidal ideation on Keith's part wasn't surprising. Studies show that up to 50% of those with bipolar will make a suicide attempt at some point during their life. The risk is especially high for those who do not have effective treatment.

For Keith, the formal diagnosis of bipolar was initially very painful for him. He says the stigma around mental health issues had a negative impact on his ability to get help and move forward.

"For a year and a half I didn’t tell anyone about my diagnosis, except my immediate family and a few close friends. I was scared to tell others because of fear of what they would think. It was very difficult because as a professional athlete, my life was always very public. Now I was living a secret. The shame and secrecy I felt was as bad as the illness itself."

Eventually, Keith realized that he didn't want others to suffer the same way he was. He began to speak out.

"I want others to know there is no shame in it," he says.

Keith wanted to get his message out to as many people as possible. He is now an internationally known speaker on the topic of mental health awareness. He has written a book, Under My Helmet, A Football Player's Lifelong Battle with Bipolar Disorder.

Although he feels he has now found the right combination of treatments in order to manage his illness, one of his frustrations with his bipolar journey was how difficult it was to find effective medication.

"There was a point when I felt like a medication guinea pig," he says.

Keith has empathy for those who are experiencing the same frustration. "I want there to be an easier way to prescribe medication for those living with bipolar," he explains. 

To those who are still struggling with mental illness, he knows that the process of finding the right treatment can be frustrating. He has this to say to them:

"Give it time. We all know the saying 'Time heals all wounds'. It’s true." 

Keith is very encouraging. "If you work hard, exercise, take your medication, find purpose, etc., you can find recovery."

And Keith has a very straightforward message to those who struggle with wanting to end their life.

“Don’t do it.”

He encourages people to remember their loved ones, and to have hope. He wants people to know that things do get better.

Of his own suicide attempt, Keith says "I feel blessed to still be alive. I realize now that life is a gift and you only have one. If I'd been successful in my attempt, there would have been so many beautiful things I would have missed, like the love that has flourished with my wife, and watching my son grow up. " 

One of the reasons why I was excited to feature Keith O'Neil on this blog is because it's clear that he's not only empathetic with those who suffer with mental illness, but he is also compassionate toward those like me, who have lost their loved ones to suicide.

I mentioned to Keith that the pain experienced by survivors is often complicated by guilt or blame. I asked him if he wanted to share something with those who are experiencing this type of complicated grief.

Keith admitted that the thought of losing someone this way is overwhelming. "You saved the hardest question for last," he told me. And yet about survivors taking on guilt, he was resolute.

"It’s not your fault. Suicide is an illness in itself."

When it comes to his efforts to end stigma and make a difference in the mental health arena, Keith knows that he has a lot to feel good about. Most especially, he is proud of the number of people his book and foundation have reached.

Of his advocacy work, Keith says "It’s very rewarding and gives me purpose, something I didn’t have when I was at my sickest moment."

It was an honor to speak to Keith O'Neil. He answered a lot of questions, but it was something he said to me in the very first message I received from him that touched my heart the most.

"Thanks for all you do Chelise, it's very important and we share the same passion."

I understand on a very personal level what it is like to use painful experiences as a motivation to help others. When it comes to turning around stigma, speaking out publicly, and most importantly - reaching out to those whose lives have been touched by mental illness and suicide - indeed, Keith O'Neil is right. He and I share the same passion.

I hope that Keith knows that he's not only helping those who are struggling with mental health issues, but he is also helping those of us who are trying to speak out the same way that he is. I can't thank him enough. And as for being in his company, I couldn't be more proud to be a fellow advocate.

You can find Keith's book on Amazon, here: 

Under My Helmet: A Football Player's LIfelong Battle wiht Bipolar Disorder: