Heisman Trophy Recipient Says No Shame for Mental Illness Patients

Story Number: NNS150605-12Release Date: 6/5/2015 1:18:00 PM
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By Jacqui Barker, NSWC PCD Public Affairs

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (NNS) -- National Football League (NFL) and Heisman Trophy recipient Herschel Walker spoke to Sailors and civilians June 4 onboard Naval Support Activity Panama City (NSA PC) about breaking down stigmas related to mental illness.

Walker spoke specifically about his formally diagnosed dissociative identity disorder to NSA PC event attendees in support of the Universal Health Services Patriot Support Program, a TRICARE provider operating 14 inpatient/residential treatment centers in the continental United States. The program's mission is to encourage service members to ask for help with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. Since 2008, Walker has visited more than 100 military installations or units and with more than 100,000 service members to share his personal experience about mental illness and treatment.

"I'm living proof you can overcome it," said Walker. "I used to be so worried about what people thought but I'm not now. There is no shame in asking for help. The best thing that ever happened to me is that I got help."

No shame indeed. Walker did more than just speak to the crowd. He led them through a highly engaging, deeply personal journey about a young man who was overweight, once stuttered and had reading problems. He had been outcast by teachers and shunned by peers until one day, he began to work out, to go to the library and reach on his own, and to read out loud to stop stuttering. By 9th grade, he had become one of the fastest kids in the state. As a senior in high school in Wrightsville, Georgia, he graduated as his class valedictorian.

"I always wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps but I was always afraid to tell my parents," he said. Rather than enlisting, Walker went to play football at the University of Georgia and by his junior year in college was named the 1982 Heisman Trophy recipient.

In 1983, Walker gave up his final year of collegiate eligibility and turned profession and joined the New Jersey Generals in the United States Football League. After his first professional season, he finished his Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice at the University of Georgia. In 1986, he joined the Dallas Cowboys and later played with the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and returned to Dallas in 1996. A year later, he retired from the NFL but he never stopped working. He competed in mixed martial arts Strike Force between 2010 and 2011. He has supported numerous charities and educational organizations, earned an honorary doctorate degree, patented ideas, wrote his memoir, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identify Disorder.

"This disorder isn't something you're really born with. It's usually a result of some kind of trauma," he said. "I didn't know anything was wrong with me. I never cried. That's the dissociative part - you don't have emotions or feel pain."

Walker began to realize something was wrong when his wife revealed her concern for him and his ability to compartmentalize issues. As a man of faith, he initially reached out to his church where an exorcism was performed but his pastor encouraged him to continue to be strong and see answers. It wasn't until he checked into a behavioral health clinic until he began to understand something was wrong.

"I was ashamed because I was a little fat kid and so I was hiding things," he said. "When I was in that hospital, God told me I had more to do. So, I got up and started to feel better."

Ironically, Walker never liked football as a child.

"I started to play football so I wouldn't have to help my mother wash dishes," he said.

So, as a NFL football player known as the "cleaner" on his team, he became the one guy the other players went to for help with their problems. Yet, when Walker began to struggle with the disorder, they treated him differently.

"When I was going through this, no one came to help me," said Walker. "They all stopped calling. No one wanted to go to the movies or do anything with me anymore."

Walker's passion for the armed forces and his need to educate others about overcoming mental illness stigmas and how treatment can improve qualities of life led him to now participate in the Patriot Support Program.

Today, Walker holds an honorary doctorate degree, owns patents for internet programs, and is a business man. His life has evolved out of football and is now focused on his businesses and his desire to support our nation's service members.

"Other countries aren't afraid of our politicians, they are afraid of us because we have the best military in the world," he said.

More information about the Patriot Support Program can be found at http://patriotsupportprogram.com/herschelwalkercampaign or at http://patriotsupportprogram.com

For more news from Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division, visit www.navy.mil/local/NSWC/.

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