May we point that May is already more than half-way finished.
But there is plenty of time left to make sure it doesn’t escape our minds without acknowledging that Mental Health Awareness Month is an actual thing in the U.S. since 1949.
“Fitness #4Mind4Body” is the theme for 2018. The corresponding color of ribbon to wear: Green.
And as many of us will admit: Many mornings, it’s not that easy thinking green when you’re really pretty blue.
Three things that have come on our radar this week just before “May Gray” rolls over into “June Gloom” — yup, it’s an actual thing in the beach parts of Southern California where the thick overcast fog hangs over and prevents summer from officially beginning on Memorial Day weekend.
Consider how these stories on various sports media platforms can help lift any cloud of misinformation:
* “Bipolar Rock ‘N Roller,” a Showtime 75-minute documentary about MMA/kickboxing sportscaster Mauro Ranallo and his personal battles with mental illness issues, goes national with the launch on Friday, May 25 at 9 p.m. (and on-demand starting Saturday, May 26).
In L.A. this week to promote the program, including an appearance on the Rich Eisen’s Show in El Segundo, Ranallo explained why he has decided to go public with this project that exposes his Bipolar Affective Disorder, a condition afflicting nearly five percent of the U.S. population according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.org).
“I have always tried to do my part to bring awareness to mental health issues,” said Ranallo, the first broadcaster to call play-by-play on boxing, kickboxing, MMA and professional wrestling events on national television. He did the Mayweather-Pacquiao international telecast in May 2015 as well as Mayweather-McGregor for Showtime pay-per-view last August.
“Over the last several years, I allowed my best friend, Haris (Usanovic), to film me at my lowest points as well as at my highest. The idea is simply to show others who suffer that they are not alone and that, even when the outlook is bleak, you can overcome and achieve success. Mental illness is a life sentence — there is no cure — but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
* Episode 254 of HBO’s “Real Sports” on Tuesday at 10 p.m. includes a piece on Royce White, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Why did he eventually play only three games and nine minutes for Sacramento in 2013-14, before trying to come back with the Clippers for the 2015 Orlando Summer League, then resurface as the MVP and scoring leader of something called the National Basketball League in Canada?
Anxiety issues. And little recourse as to how to address it.
Two months ago, he explained to David Zirin in The Nation about how the NBA’s mental health policy falls short. Yahoo.com had a story as well last March. Bleacher Report did a piece on him last summer. Longreads.com had this one last August. So now HBO picks up the story with Bernie Goldberg, who, according to the network press release, “learns that White is continuing to speak out about mental health as he has once again found success on the basketball court.”
The NBA says it plans to name a director of mental health and wellness. White says he is skeptical, even as former USC star DeMar DeRozan and ex-UCLA standout Kevin Love have talked about their own inner battles.
Hopefully, White’s disposition changes because …
== A non-profit organizationally playfully referred to as We’re All A Little Crazy came up on my Twitter feed this week, thanks to ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell.
I might not have been initially crazy about checking it out, but glad I eventually did.
Before long, I was trying to distinguish the difference between the #SameHere hand sign and the ever-present “Hang Loose” waggle I’m used to seeing when you’re trying to convey that things are chill.
Eric Kussin, a former NBA and NHL executive, said he had what he’ll call his own “Me Too” mental health moment — PTSD, anxiety and depression that was the result of years of trauma in his life that doctors had no clue how to diagnose or cure. He decided to share.
Warning: Electroshock therapy shouldn’t be creating a buzz any more in the brain-fixing department.
“I learned a number of important things as I arose from my severe mental health battle and was contacted by people all over the world looking for help,” he said. “The term ‘mental illness’ further exacerbates the stigma, creating an ‘us vs. them’ message, as if those with poor mental health are different than people in the rest of society beyond just what they are struggling with.
“I don’t deny that mental illness exists and that many are proud of the illnesses they’ve fought. But to the masses suffering and not getting treatment, I consistently heard that this term drives people away from asking for help, because they are concerned with being categorized in such a way. We can be more inclusive with our messaging. I learned that no one is immune and that suffering from poor mental health doesn’t make you ‘weak.’ In fact, the exact opposite is true. Those battling are some of the strongest people I have ever gotten to know. ”
Many current and former athletes came on board to join Kussin’s #SameHere Celebrity Alliance, including White, volleyball star Sinjin Smith, swimmer Amanda Beard, cyclist Tyler Hamilton, hockey stars Theo Fleury and Kevin Stevens, WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw … and even hot dog eating champ Takeru Kobayashi.
Rovell read Kussin’s story, explained the impact it had on him, and wanted to be involved in the Global Mental Health Movement through the #SameHere Influencer Alliance to break stigma barriers of mental health. Plain and simple.
Others who joined Rovell are former Indianapolis Star columnist and current Indianapolis WTHR-TV personality Bob Kravitz.
Before I knew it, I was paddling out into the #SameHere waters.
Kussin’s story got me as well, as he was explaining it to me on the phone from New York.
“Sometimes life throws you a curve and you go on a different career path,” Kussin said. “Life’s traumas piled up on me. We all go through some kind of loss or job change or breakups. It’s a common human event. So when we created ‘We’re All A Little Crazy,’ we want to make sure it’s inclusive, even have a little fun with it, remove the stigma.
“The media might cover the Kevin Love story about this for three days, and then DeMar DeRosen for three more days. But this ‘Me Too’ moment for mental health is for everyone to come out and deal with their stuff, form a conversation, be vulnerable, break down barriers, and share ways we cope with things.”
So, let’s start to share …
Consider the plight of Jimmy Piersall.
Growing up in L.A. in the ’60s, my only real recollection about any intersection between sports and mental illness was knowing about this outfielder who came to the L.A. Angels in July, 1963 — it was about a month after the New York Mets released him, having watched him run around the bases backward upon hitting his 100th career homer in June of that year and then made fun of manager Casey Stengel.
Piersall ended his 17-year career as an Angel, released in May of ’67, one of the best-fielding center fielders of all time.
If you saw the somewhat campy movie of his life with Anthony Perkins, it was all about “fear” and striking out, based on a 1955 book he told to Al Hirshberg when Piersall was a 24-year-old AL All-Star with the Boston Red Sox.
If you caught him hamming it up on TV with Milton Berle, it was, as maybe a friend’s dad announced to a group of us watching, because “that guy is nuts.”
When Piersall died a year ago, a Chicago media outlet referred to him as “colorful” in the headline.
This is how the media, the sports media, was OK with reporting on mental illness back then.
“Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts,” Piersall wrote in his 1984 book, “The Truth Hurts,” at which point he well into a career in the Chicago White Sox’s broadcast booth with Harry Caray by his side.
“It brought people out to the ballpark to get a look at me, and they came to the places where I was invited to speak. ‘Let’s see what the monkey looks like,’ they`d say, and they’d come by the thousands. And in all the businesses I got involved with it helped because the people I was promoting things to or selling products to knew about me because of all the publicity about my mental problems. That was back in the early 1950s. It’s pretty much the same today, in the 1980s; they still want to see what the monkey is like.
“The way I look at it, it has been a blessing for me. I am a nonconformist, an individualist. I tell it like I see it, even though it has gotten me into a helluva lot of trouble. … I am not a blind follower of rules and regulations. I tell the truth, even if it hurts.”
Mental health hurts. It literally pounds your head into a bedroom headboard, when it’s not under a pile of pillows to keep out the light.
My issues with what was diagnosed as pretty typical clinical depression started in the mid-1980s, did nothing to help keep two marriages together (the third is going on a 15-year run), led to all sorts of therapy starts and stops, a couple of AWOL instances before cell phones or GPS could track me down to realize I was somewhat OK, one emergency visit to the UCLA Medical Center because of an anxiety attack related to work and a prescription reaction, and eventually got me settled into a routine of a low dose of proper medication to treat a chemical imbalance to go along with regular psychological checkups.
I’m not damaged goods. I’ve never felt more “normal” in years. Periods come and go, not to be misdiagnosed as something major approaching. I’m a bit moody, but I can now see signs of manic-depressive behavior going all the way back to the mid-1970s that might have been called out earlier rather than later.
There is some genetics to it. I’ve seen it take hold of other family members. There is a stigma or fear or whatever one wants to call it related to getting professional help.
Things could be much worse. But here we are.
I did a piece which now feels as if it ran years ago — it was something tongue-in-cheek about how Angelinos could deal with what I called “Vin Scully Separation Anxiety.” Or “Post-Poet Depression.” It was April 1, 2017, but it was no April Fool’s joke.
The crux of the story came from the advice of Dr. Randye J. Semple, who specializes in therapy dealing with depression and mood and anxiety disorders while as an assistant professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
She played along with the premise before getting a little more serious than I anticipated, hitting on the fact that this was more a bereavement issue and there needed to be a grieving process.
She walked me through a process called “decentering” and “common cognitive rationalization,” and then a deeper dive into what’s now commonly referred to mindfulness as well as other coping mechanisms.
Her voice entered my head like nothing I’d experienced before with any other doctors or counselors. It was never explained quite that well to me. I could apply it to myself as well as try to convey it to the readers.
But it also caused me to go back to a few times I spent with Scully during a Catholic Mass at Dodger Stadium, where his reading of scripture was also so profound and … God-like? … it gave me chills, but also a sense of calm. I think about that now, especially with this recent CD released by the Catholic Athletes for Christ where Scully narrates the rosary.
By the way, it reminds of us this beautiful passage in the 2000 autobiography of comedian Richard Lewis called “The Other Great Depression: How I’m Overcoming On a Daily Basis At Least A million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life,” from page 76, a chapter entitled “Thanks Vin.”
“My first love in life, I’m pretty sure, was the Brooklyn Dodgers. From about five years old on, I was completely consumed with that team … Even more consistent than the Dodgers losing the World Series championships to the Yankees was one of their broadcasters, who soon would become their ‘voice,’ and a heavenly escape for me. Vin Scully’s voice and perceptions have sometimes taken up more space in my head than my own thoughts … I never missed a game on radio or TV while the Dodgers were in Brooklyn unless school interfered. When the ‘Brooklyn Bums’ abandoned us for tacos and palm trees, it meant an unbearably long, restful twenty years of not hearing Vin on a regular basis …
“When I moved to L.A. and got to my new Hollywood dump of an apartment and started to unpack, I immediately put on the radio and there he was. The Dodgers had left Brooklyn but Scully had not left the Dodgers, and his voice was … biblical sounding. On TV, he is great but on radio, for my money, he is the master image-maker of this great sport for all time. … I was in this little run-down apartment that had a big bay windows from floor to ceiling and not much else … The apartment house was right next door to some motel that doubled as a whorehouse. … I had my hands behind my head, lay back, forgot about goals, fears, money, everything, because Vin Scully was back on the radio and that was good enough for me. I wasn’t happy, but he’d made me forget that. … Even more than the game, I just have to hear someone else’s voice in my head. ANd that voice would have to be Vin Scully’s. Thanks, Vin.”
Journalism may not be the tip-top career choice for someone who has to go undergo constant fluctuation with stress, deadlines, cold calls, reporting sad news or writing obituaries of people we know, or even level-headed conversations with editors.
I remember doing a 2009 piece on beach volleyball star Mike Whitmarsh. He committed suicide. He had some financial issues with his business after the recession, but no one really knows why he did it.
I remember writing the last few lines of the story, from personal experience:
Emotions are difficult to control in times of personal anguish. Actions are sometimes even more difficult to stop. Life is too fragile and can go in a direction fast the other way without warning if you’re not careful.
If you find yourself going in that direction some day — maybe you’ve just lost your job because of the economy, you’ve lost a loved one to a sudden passing, or you’ve lost your faith in mankind — stop a second, don’t tell everyone that you’ll be fine, and seek some help. Scream if you must.
Don’t go there alone. Your family and friends will want you around more than any pain you think you may be causing them just by sticking around.
I’d repeat that advice today. Especially to myself.
By the way, the fourth annual Mike Whitmarsh Beach Charity Volleyball event is this Saturday at Dog Beach in Del Mar.
We learned over the years that journalists like Mike Wallace persevered, even when Wallace’s wife once asked the family doctor if he he could be suffering from clinical depression, the doctor reportedly replied: “Forget the word ‘depression’ because that’ll be bad for your image.”
Brian Wilson, the famed leader of the Beach Boys and a fellow Hawthorne High alum, also went through it. There’s a scene in the 2014 movie, “Love & Mercy,” where Wilson is playing back the iconic song, “God Only Knows,” in the studio only to have his father yell at him: “That’s not a song, it’s a suicide note.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if none of this affected the sports world, our place for escape from all our issues?
Last August, USA Today did a large take-out piece about sports and mental health that included the plight of Jerry West and Michael Phelps, as well as circling back Royce White.
“Some people hide their pain,” West said about his bouts with his “dark moods” and low self-esteem. “I’m not proud of the fact that I don’t feel good about myself a lot of the time, but it’s nothing I’m ashamed of.”
It still can be, but going back to the original premise, if sports and the media can help at all with demystifying some of it — still — we’re all a lot better off for it. Mind the gap between those quietly suffer and those eventually who ask for help.
Scream, if you must. At least exhale and take in some of the sports-media related experiences above, and then think it through.
And, if you like, check out my new #SameHere “Influencer” bio. I hope to help the organization with speaking engagements as it heads to the West Coast for college and high school students who could use some time to talk.