ATHENS, Ga. – Six years ago, University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker revealed he had been dealing for years, including during his playing days as a UGA running back, with dissociative identity disorder, a mental health condition popularly understood as having multiple personalities.
In the years since making that revelation, the Heisman Trophy winner and former NCAA record holder, who led the Bulldogs to the 1980 collegiate national championship, has worked to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and to lobby for more readily available treatment options.
Walker brought that message to Athens Thursday, speaking with dozens of mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and other people about the challenges of addressing mental illness. The event, at Herschel’s 34 Chicken & Ribs Kitchen, Walker’s downtown Athens restaurant, was hosted by SummitRidge Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Lawrenceville.
In an interview prior to addressing the crowd on the myriad issues surrounding mental health, Walker said while he still takes opportunities to speak with the doctors he meets while doing his mental health advocacy work, he’s no longer under any formal treatment for the disorder that prompted him to check himself into a hospital some years ago.
In his case, it was a raging anger that finally prompted him to seek help, he said.
“If I had not gotten help, I would have killed myself,” Walker said. “I didn’t like who I was. I’d get angry over nothing. It got so intense that I thought, ‘I could really injure somebody.’ ”
Walker is grateful, he said, that his athletic achievements have given him a soapbox for his advocacy. “The Heisman, the NFL, UGA … they all opened doors so my voice can be heard,” Walker said.
His advocacy has focused in particular on the people serving in America’s armed forces, many of whom come home from combat assignments struggling with mental health problems. During his association with the military, he’s seen an increasing awareness of mental health challenges among the nation’s military personnel. “They’re talking about getting help,” Walker said.
It’s an attitude he’d like to see in the civilian world, particularly with regard to college students and other young people, especially as news of school shootings becomes more commonplace.
“When are we going to talk about preventative action?” Walker asked. He said he sees “a huge role” for the nation’s lawmakers in addressing mental health issues, and adds, “they have to take that initiative. We have to have leaders that are going to be on fire about it.”
Societal attitudes toward mental health issues also need some changes, Walker said.
“Mental health is different,” he said. “When you start talking about mental health, people get scared, thinking ‘you’re crazy.’ ” Walker said he was particularly surprised by his friends in the NFL, some of whom he’d helped through their own personal crises, who didn’t want to have anything to do with him after he started talking about his illness.
Still, Walker said he wouldn’t change anything about his life, because it has brought him to a place where he can serve as an advocate for people dealing with mental illness.
“There’s no shame in it,” Walker said of mental illness. “Life is ups and downs.”