Commentary

Discussing mental illness

Comments about Titus Young ignore real problems athletes, society face

Updated: May 16, 2013, 4:57 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The first piece of instruction they should give students in journalism school, even before the stuff about sourcing and fairness, is this: Don't read the comments under the story. There's not much good that can come of it, fueled as they are by equal parts viciousness and failed humor, with a lone voice of reason always flailing about, momentarily trying to swim against the current before being pulled under, never to be seen again.

That's about the extent of every online discussion, especially those centering on topics that allow the sports world to intersect with the world at large. On rare occasions, those subjects prompt comments that illuminate, generating an uncivil conversation that offers a peek into a belief system or a trend that cries out to be addressed. This week, that opportunity was presented in the troubled form of ex-Lions wide receiver Titus Young, a 23-year-old athlete who was arrested three times in the past 12 days on various charges in four separate incidents ranging from DUI to stealing items from a gas-station convenience store. 

Titus Young's father, Richard, spoke to the two Detroit newspapers on Monday and said his son is suffering from a mental illness. He said he doesn't recognize the person he sees now and believes these self-destructive acts are being committed (allegedly) by someone who is not in a healthy state of mind.

Aside from Richard Young's vague contention that a past concussion is to blame, it's impossible to question anything he says. Mental illness often manifests itself in sociopathic, self-destructive acts, and the medication Richard says Titus is supposed to be taking -- Seroquel -- is commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder. Given Young's recent behavior, it doesn't take much of a leap to assume there's something going on that is out of Young's control.

[+] EnlargeTitus Young
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTitus Young played 26 games for the Lions the past two seasons.

And yet, this has become a hugely controversial issue, for one reason: Somehow, mental illness remains a great unexamined and unacknowledged aspect of society in general and sports in particular. It cuts across social, racial and economic boundaries, but it is misunderstood to such an incredible degree that a portion of the population questions not only its impact on an individual but its very existence.

We can't see it, so its veracity is open for debate.

The professional athlete suffering from mental illness has a much more difficult route to acceptance. From Jimmy Piersall to Metta World Peace to Royce White, the athlete isn't sick -- he's considered irresponsible. He is seen as being privileged to such an extreme degree -- paid to play a game translates to chosen by God in some circles -- that he can't possibly have feelings of depression or grandiosity or mania. If he does the things Young is accused of doing, it's because he's either entitled or -- America's favorite code word alert -- a thug.

A percentage of the population -- or at least the sports-consumer population -- believes it's more acceptable and reasonable for a landscaper or a banker or an infantryman to suffer from mental illness than a ballplayer. It's almost as if they believe mental illness bypasses those whose lives are seen by others as inordinately blessed.

A sampling of the comments:

"He does have a disorder. It's called lack of discipline."

"There is no brain disorder that makes you break the law."

"there is nothing to feel sorry about here."

"put on your big boy pants and stop blaming things"

"Boy if I was given a shot to play in the NFL I would be on my best behavior and work as hard as I can!"

The last one is a common refrain: He's blowing an opportunity the rest of us would never let slip out of our grasp. We have no sympathy for someone who is given the chance to fulfill our dream and proceeds to treat the opportunity either recklessly or in a manner that offends our sensibilities.

Somehow, an admission of mental illness is seen as a means of getting off easy. Young's father, in the view of commenters, is using a diagnosis as an excuse to save his son and explain away his son's bad choices, just another way of avoiding personal responsibility.

However, a valid mental illness is one reason bad things happen. It's not an excuse or a means of sidestepping responsibility. If Young is given leniency because a court rules that mental illness influenced his decisions, he'll remain ill and in need of treatment his entire life. It's hardly a vacation from responsibility.

Not all of the mentally ill commit crimes, but America's prisons have become the de facto home for a significant portion of those suffering from mental illness. In California, where Ronald Reagan closed mental hospitals while governor, 30 percent of the state prison population has been diagnosed with a mental illness. According to The Bureau of Justice Statistics, illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are two to four times more likely to be found in prison than outside. Compounding the problem are laws that make it nearly impossible for family members to get help for someone over the age of 18 unless he has proven to be a threat to himself or others.

Is that difficult to understand? When it comes to sports, evidently it is. And as for the accusation that Richard Young brought up mental illness only when his son was sitting in jail? Well, sure he did. There's no reason to reference mental illness when you're catching 10 passes on a Sunday afternoon and going home to eat dinner and get a good night's sleep. Mental illness is one explanation for why people who suffer from it commit anti-social acts. It's not limited to people who are poor or who dislike their work or have troubles at home.

Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall has acknowledged having a personality disorder that caused him to engage in similarly self-destructive acts. Since seeking treatment, Marshall has become an eloquent and passionate spokesman for a greater awareness of mental illness. During an appearance on "NFL Live," Marshall said, "We need more people to talk about it and not make people like Titus Young and myself -- or others who can't fight for themselves -- a national punchline." 

We don't know Young's medical history, but it seems possible that what he's done the past 12 days is just about the perfect definition of mental illness. The fact that he's potentially destroying his career -- his great opportunity -- is nothing more than evidence.

How deep is the lack of understanding? So deep that the arguments against Young are the best arguments for Young.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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