Football legend tackles mental-health stigma
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Soldiers stood in long lines at the Post Theater here Feb. 22 to get autographs and take pictures with Herschel Walker, one of the top running backs in the history of professional football. Walker spoke to Soldiers in Alaska about the importance of seeking help for mental-health issues. (Photo by Sgt. Tamika Dillard/U.S. Army Alaska)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Admitting you a have a problem doesn't mean you're weak, Herschel Walker told Soldiers and Airmen Feb. 22 at the Post Theater here.

"I was born with a speech impediment and I was fat," Walker said. "I was the target for all jokes by other kids."

As a coping mechanism, he explained, he shut himself off from everyone.

"I started exercising, 5,000 pushups and sit-ups a day, pull-ups and chin-ups on a tree limb in my backyard," he said. "Nobody will get me anymore. I felt untouchable. I was a superhero."

"I started writing and working on my speech problem," he said. "I was going to be the best."

After a distinguished college football career, Walker became one of the top running backs in the sport, gaining more yards than anyone in professional football history, yet he did not know why he could not remember some of his biggest moments.

This other person in his life started to emerge more often than he realized, stepping in more often causing him to be angry and think irrationally.

"I realized I had a problem when a car vendor delayed me for more than two weeks," he said.

"When he finally called me back to meet him, I became very upset and I grabbed my gun, put it into the holster and took off; headed to meet this person," Walker said. "One part of me is saying 'no, you should not do this,' while the other part of me is saying 'no, I am going to kill this guy'."

While the two sides of him were battling it out, he sat down on a nearby stoop and started to pray.

"I prayed - 'God help me. I'm about to do something really stupid'," he said.

Not too proud to get help
Noted as one of the greatest football players of all time, Herschel Walker was not too proud to admit he needed help.

What he did not realize is that he was adding a second person into his life. This person however was angry and potentially dangerous.

Walker was dealing with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

According to Dr. Amal Chakraburtty, writing on the site WebMD.com, most of us have experienced mild dissociation, which is like daydreaming or getting lost in the moment while working on a project. However, dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation which produces a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity dissociative identity disorder is thought to stem from trauma experienced by the person with the disorder. The dissociative aspect is thought to be a coping mechanism -- the person literally dissociates himself from a situation or experience that's too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate with his conscious self.

Walker said he created an alter ego for himself at a young age to counter all the painful experiences he faced growing up.

Stopping the stigma
A National Institute for Mental Health study concluded that 26 percent of adults in the United States "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year." Despite that, seeking help still has a stigma associated with it.

That stigma persists in the military, according to an American Psychiatric Association study, which found that 60 percent of military members think seeking help for mental health concerns would have at least some negative impact on their career.

As the spokesman for the Freedom Care Program, a specialized mental health and addiction treatment program for service members, Walker said he hopes to stop that stigma among military members.

On behalf of Freedom Care, he has visited more than 20 military installations sharing his story with more than 6,000 troops.

'If you're suffering, get help'
"We try to minimize the stigma by making it a part of the unit's pre-deployment screening," said Staff Sgt. Lindsay Barth, noncommissioned officer in charge of Behavioral Health at the JBER Troop Medical Clinic, or TMC.

"We screen Soldiers and provide them with a lot of information before they deploy," Barth said. "While down range, each unit has a Combat Stress Control Team to help Soldiers when they develop problems. Once Soldiers arrive back to Alaska we screen them again and then it's left up to the Soldiers to seek further treatment."

Soldiers normally don't realize that they truly have a problem until three to four months have passed and their symptoms are not letting up, according to Barth.

Hearing Walker talk about his struggles inspired one Soldier to seek help.

"I was deployed for 17 months in Iraq as a supply specialist," said Sgt. Cory Glenn, now a supply sergeant with the 545th Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. I realize now that I had possibly created a new person within myself to adapt to the situation. I am not the same person I was before the deployment."

Glenn said since hearing Walker speak, he visited the mental health department at the Troop Medical Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

"Today we have one of football's greatest players before us, giving us the courage to seek help," Glenn said. "If you are suffering, get help."

Seeking help can benefit both the Soldier and the mission, according to Barth.

"You need to be healthy mentally, physically and emotionally," Barth said. "If you are not, you cannot perform your job to the best of your ability."

If you, or someone you know is suffering from mental illness contact the JBER-Richardson Troop Medical Clinic at 384-1167, or the Military Family Life Consultant at 907-440-8200. You can also find help online at www.militaryonesource.com

Page last updated Tue March 1st, 2011 at 20:36