Wrong use of illness

Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley works hard to promote the whole arena of athletics as an important part of life.
But last week (Jan. 20), he pulled a big foul early in his column on the men's UF/Tennessee basketball game.
Tennessee may not play basketball with finesse or consistency in the SEC. And Tennessee should not have beaten UF. But they are definitely not "schizophrenic."
Dooley's misuse of the term schizophrenic has been innocent enough in his columns, but the bottom-line effect is that it contributes significantly to keeping the lid on quality athletics for everyone. Here's why.
Schizophrenia is a neurobiological medical condition of brain cells. The affected tissues of the brain impact an athlete's thinking process, moods, ability to relate to teammates and the capacity for coping with the demands of performing in public.
Schizophrenic does not mean split personality and does not mean indecisiveness. Schizophrenia is not mental retardation. All of those misunderstandings were discarded decades ago.
Schizophrenia is basically unavoidable, along with other severe and persistent disruptions of brain cells that cause bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and other major anxiety disorders.
The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that about 20 percent of Americans have one of these mental illnesses, and nearly 1 family in 4 is directly affected by them. Athletes and teams are not exempt from these numbers.
But if these mental illnesses are so devastating, and if so many players are affected, then why don't athletes get the treatment they deserve?
In one word: stigma. Misuse of the term "schizophrenic" is slowly making its way out of the popular press as more and more well-meaning writers become aware of the damage that misuse brings in the form of stigma.
The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that negative public perception of mental illness - however ignorant - is the single greatest barrier to solving this disease problem.
It turns out that athletes simply don't seek out the treatments that will help them and their team. The solution to this problem is to make schizophrenia and other mental illnesses accurate household words in a positive light.
The surgeon general has said that public venues, such as newspapers, should take the lead in bringing public awareness of 21st century treatment of mental illnesses up to speed with body illness awareness.
Fortunately, Lance Armstrong was not shamed out of being treated for his diseased cells. Seeking treatment for a brain disorder should be no different.
The President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health states that mental illnesses should be treated with the same urgency as any other illness.
Most athletes with a severe mental illness suffer silently and the result of not treating their brain cells takes the whole team down with them. Some players have their disorder recognized in time to see the benefits of treatment.
NFL rushing leader Ricky Williams, quarterback/broadcaster Terry Bradshaw and Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins were among those who were eventually treated with medication and supportive counseling after they hit a wall in their careers.
Sports psychiatry is a rapidly growing field, mainly because so many athletes are affected by a mental illness.
Teams are finally facing the problem and helping troubled athletes to the benefit of everyone. The popular sports press has recently featured many articles describing the negative impact of not treating mental illnesses among athletes, pro and otherwise.
A great piece in Sports Illustrated discusses this trend: ( ).
Here are two nice summaries of the diseases that affect major league and college athletes alike.
They are: and also Dooley's sports columns are among the most creative pieces in the newspaper.
Hopefully, Pat will continue to promote the whole arena of athletics by curbing inaccurate and damaging use of the term "schizophrenic."
Having a mental illness is not a weakness in athletic ability - avoiding its treatment is.
Bruce Stevens is co-president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, NAMI, North Central Florida Affiliate. He is a professor of medicine at the University of Florida.

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