Yesterday morning, I watched the Today show interview with Harry Miller, a former Ohio State football player who retired in order to protect his mental health. Harry played for three seasons and made the decision to step away from the game after sharing with his coach that he had plans to kill himself. Harry is not what you might first think when you picture a Division I athlete. He was Valedictorian of his high school class and maintains a 4.0 GPA in Engineering at Ohio State. He also isn’t who you might picture when you think of a college kid who is clinically depressed. He regularly travels to places like Nicaragua to help build houses and schools. He’s good looking, strong and in peak physical shape.
So how are we supposed to tell if a kid is struggling?
It’s scary - the headlines are showing us Olympic and pro athletes who are dying by suicide. It is interesting to me that kids who look like they have it all going for them can actually be at particular risk. Due to the dopamine hit that athletes are used to regularly receiving, they are at higher risk of addiction. Additionally, if they are injured or quit the team etc. and don’t get that “fix,” they can fall into a depression as a direct result.
So what should we be looking out for?
It all starts with conversation. It might be as simple as a quick check in:
“How are you doing with all of the ups and downs that Covid is continuing to fire at us this year?”
“Have you found some good ways to blow away stress? It really makes a difference for me when I . . . But I am always looking for new tools to add to my tool box.”
And even, “Are all the adults in your life driving you crazy?”
Research shows that asking questions, checking in with someone you care about, can often unearth the vulnerabilities that can lead to a kid believing that ending it is the answer. The key is in the listening though. When someone says something that is hard to hear, it is natural to want to cut them off: “Oh, you don’t really mean that.” Or by offering well intentioned advice: “Exercise really helps me to burn off stress.” (There is science behind this), but the first step is to have that initial conversation so that the other person really feels HEARD.
Because their brains are not fully developed yet (the process isn’t complete until girls are in their early twenties and boys are in their mid-twenties),
the most powerful structures in the brains of typical high school kids are their amygdalas,
the emotional center of the brain. What this means, is that when a kid tells you at 8:25 am that this is the WORST day ever, it really is at that point, although it might be equally wonderful by lunch time. While adults average about 3-4 emotions during the course of a day, kids commonly experience fourteen. And because the amygdala is driving the bus, rather than the pre-frontal cortex, which is the executive center, kids' depressions can be 4x more powerful than when an adult is suffering.
Depression is an insidious a disease in a grown up; it’s truly sobering to stop and think about it being that much stronger in a kid, who doesn’t have the life experience to know that EVERYTHING changes, and that pain, humiliation, heartbreak and sadness can be overcome, or at the very least will fade with time.
The Today crew talked about how thankful they were for Harry speaking out about his pain, rather than having to cover a story about what he’d left behind, as we’ve seen several times in the last year. He talked about one of his tactics, sort of a “fake it til you make it,” which I have certainly used as a leader over the years, but hadn’t thought to apply to this sort of situation before:
Hope is just pretending to believe in something until one day,
you don’t have to pretend anymore . . . I would just ask you
to pretend for a little bit, and then one day, you won’t have to
pretend anymore and you’ll be happy.
Thank you, Harry.