Andrew Miller doesn't remember the period between his junior and senior year of high school as a fun-in-the-sun three months typically enjoyed by a 17-year-old.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
It was during those months that Miller began feeling a certain darkness he'd never experienced before.
"I didn't understand the feelings, I didn't understand the symptoms, but I felt myself getting more and more isolated," reflected the Vikings Chief Operating Officer. "And I'm not necessarily the most extroverted person in the first place, but I was just withdrawing and withdrawing and withdrawing.
"It became a cycle," he added. "I was withdrawing because I didn't feel like I had connections or that people wanted me to be around, and then that made it worse."
Miller had trouble sleeping, and any rest he did get fell into irregular patterns. He often found himself spending most of the night awake and seeking out times to sleep during the day. He stopped exercising, which didn't align with usual habits for the high school athlete. Sometimes he ate too much; other times he barely ate at all.
"It was really hard. It took me a long time to understand what was happening," said Miller, who would come to be diagnosed with clinical depression.
Talking to a therapist proved helpful, as did returning to a routine when school started back up in the fall. And although that period of depression did eventually lift, he's experienced multiple bouts with the mental illness throughout his adult life.
“It’s one of those cycles that you just feel like you’re hopeless. You don’t feel like there’s anything that’s going to make it better, and all of those things – not being around people, not having the support – you’re pulling away from it instead of going toward it, which is what you need at the time.” - Andrew Miller
Miller has understood over the years the importance of self-care, from exercise and diet to getting the appropriate amount of sleep and finding time to connect with others.
He's also learned to recognize the signs of a potential depressive episode and take the steps necessary to persevere through that period of time.
"It makes it easier for me to understand when those feelings are coming on, when those symptoms are coming on, of forcing myself to get back into the healthier routines," Miller said. "I'm not in any way saying that's an easy thing to do. At different times it's important for people to get the resources they need from a medical expert – a psychologist or a counselor – because those feelings are real. And it's not something that people should take lightly. If people are physically ill … they go to doctors, they take medicines. And from a mental standpoint, too often we look inwardly and say, 'I can just solve this myself,' when that may not be the best solution."
The Vikings hired Miller in August of 2019, meaning he had less than a year under his belt before the COVID-19 pandemic caused a nation-wide shutdown in mid-March 2020. He now has spent more time working remotely due to the coronavirus than he has from his office at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
But Miller has endeavored to maintain intentional communication with the staff, and along the way he's emphasized the importance of tending to one's mental health during difficult times. In a message to employees last spring, he acknowledged that depression has affected his life.
"I felt it was important to share that with the staff early on in [the pandemic] and make sure that people knew, again, tying to de-stigmatize, that I've suffered from it and I understand where people are coming from," Miller said. "It hasn't been easy."
A sign of courage
For Miller and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, the mental well-being of not only the team but the organization as a whole is a shared priority.
Spielman emphasized the importance of taking a "whole different approach" to mental health than was the norm several years ago.
"It's not a label anymore," Spielman said of mental illness. "To me, it shows a sign of courage when you reach out to the experts that you need some help, whether it's dealing with anxiety, or this issue or that issue. It's a sign of courage that you're willing to step up and get the help that you need.
"If a player gets an ankle injury or someone has a pulled hamstring, you go immediately to the training room, to the doctors, to try to get that healed as quickly as you can so you can get back on the field," he added. "There should be no reason why mental health shouldn't be looked at and taken with the same approach."
Miller echoed Spielman's sentiments, using a similar analogy.
"It's important for us to provide resources for our staff members across the board," Miller said. "we provide medical and dental insurance, and we want people to be happy and healthy and successful in their roles and also in their lives. And mental health is one component of that."
The Vikings offer a variety of mental health resources that can be utilized by players, coaches and staff.
These resources include an in-house clinical psychologist, Brownell Mack, PsyD, LP; an in-house clinical psychiatrist, Larry Young, M.D.; and a sports psychologist. These individuals are regularly on-site at TCO Performance Center throughout the week and also are available on a 24/7 emergency basis.
The Vikings organization provides all staff and their families with free access to a confidential employee assistance program that offers phone-based counseling, as well as limited face-to-face counseling.
Players also have regular access to Executive Director of Player Development Les Pico, who oversees the department that offers ongoing off-the-field assistance to players and their families. Pico additionally leads the rookie success program.
"It's becoming more acceptable and actually encouraged – we encourage everybody in this building, not only our athletes but everybody, to have a mental health [care] system in place here," Spielman said. "And that starts from our ownership on down giving us the resources to have those professionals in place.
"I think it's made a huge difference in our organization," Spielman added. "I know it's a big initiative from the NFL league office, how they're [prioritizing] mental health, so we're trying to be a part of that."
Dr. Young addressed the stigma that has persisted around seeking help for mental illness.
"In this country especially, there is a focus on being able to 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' when something gets difficult. Oftentimes, asking for any help is seen as a sign of weakness," Young said. "In addition to this, mental health treatment in the distant past has been at best ineffective and, at worst, inhumane or harmful."
He pointed out that people suffering from mental illness often were regarded as "less than human," sometimes even being institutionalized without hope of recovery.
"As a result of these and many other historical factors, people are often still reluctant to admit they are struggling and ask for help. And if they do, they don't want anyone to know about it, worried that they will be judged negatively," Young said. "Many people are often focused on trying to take care of problems on their own – without seeking therapy, psychotropic medications or really any help at all.
“Unfortunately, the problem usually gets worse, often pushing people into crisis. The more we learn about the biological basis of mental illness and how the brain works, the more we know how listening to that stigma and suffering in silence can be quite destructive, even lethal.” - Dr. Young
Fortunately, the tide does seem to be turning, albeit slowly, throughout society and across multiple platforms.
From NBA All-Star Kevin Love sharing his battles with anxiety and panic attacks, to Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and Falcons TE Hayden Hurst delving into their respective experiences with depression, athletes of all walks of life are opening up about tough topics.
"It's great to see when people – players or otherwise – are willing to share their stories and the challenges they've faced or overcome in mental health," Miller said. "That makes everybody feel more comfortable with the fact that they may be dealing with something similar. We all as people feel some level of comfort knowing that other people may be faced with similar things that we're dealing with.
"Our players, our organization, we have a tremendous platform we can use to make a positive impact in people's lives," he added. "It's been extremely impressive to me, seeing our players voice their perspectives – whether it's on social justice or on mental health."
Jalyn Holmes, Eric Kendricks, Tyler Conklin and Harrison Hand have shared their mental health journeys with the understanding they have the Vikings full support. Through their willingness to be vulnerable, the teammates hope to help someone else facing similar experiences.
"[I appreciate that they] know the organization is going to be behind them 100 percent," Spielman said. "Not only to provide resources but to support them when they do come forward and want to talk about their struggles."
Leaning on a support system
Although Miller acknowledged at a high level to staff the challenges he's faced, he's also the first to admit that being more open earlier on may have been helpful.
Miller has been grateful for his wife, Jill, who's been an "extremely supportive" spouse through the ups and downs he's experienced. But reflecting on growing up with four siblings, it occurred to him that he hasn't taken full advantage of the built-in support system of family.
"I've talked to two of my siblings recently – in fact, one of them this [month] – that didn't even know I had suffered from depression," Miller said. "So when I think about the vulnerability and I think about the stigma, I realized the people literally closest to me in my life didn't even know I was going through that, and I've never shared it with them.
"I'd say that I probably haven't done as good a job as I need to in relying on the people I care about and that I love and love me back to help me through those times," he added.
Like many others, Spielman has seen the impact mental illness has on loved ones, and he's thankful to be able to provide a support system when needed.
"I'm very fortunate and blessed to be in the position I am to have the resources to help a family member personally," Spielman said. "I've seen when they were open-minded and they took it seriously to go get the help they needed, what a difference it's made."
It's important to remember, Spielman noted, that emotional or mental hurdles aren't overcome in a day. Often, patience and commitment are required by not only the individual but also those he or she is close to.
"It's not a quick fix overnight. It's something that takes time, and as long as you're committed to it and … keep committed to [that person] to help them get through it, I've seen it first-hand what a difference it does make."
'You are not alone'
Miller and Spielman together navigated a 2020 NFL season drastically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice issues and other stressors.
If there's ever been a more crucial time to talk about mental health, it's now.
For many, the global pandemic has created increased anxiety around health and finances, depression as a result of suffering extreme loss and extended periods of isolation, or other emotional traumas. Miller pointed out that an already difficult time was compounded by the death of George Floyd in May while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.
"It couldn't be more of an urgent topic for us to talk about this past year, because it has been so acute in seeing it," Miller said. "When the COVID shutdown happened a year ago, very quickly we started talking internally about the importance of mental health for our staff members and, frankly, our players and coaches and everybody else associated with our organization, because we were all moving into a completely uncertain time.
"For us, it was to try to get that message out, 'You need to be focused on your mental health, given all the challenges that we've been dealing with,' " Miller added.
He and Spielman hope that the Getting Open series will encourage others who may be struggling in various areas.
Spielman reminded that mental health concerns should not be "brushed under the rug" or, on the converse, used as an excuse to label an individual dealing with challenges.
"It's something that needs to be in the forefront; people need to reach out when they need help, and there's plenty of resources out there to get the help that you need," he said. "It's not … 'Well, I'm weak because I can't handle my own situations.' That's a totally wrong approach."
Whether directly or indirectly, mental illness likely affects every single one of us in some facet or another.
And yet, for years and years it's been viewed as a taboo topic.
"The more people can understand that it's something that's very common and a lot of people are struggling in different ways, that'll help make it more front and center in the conversation," Miller said.
"If you are suffering from a mental health standpoint, [know] that you're not alone, and that you should seek help from your support network and from the resources you have available," Miller later added. "There is a stigma around mental health, and to the extent that we can all recognize that it's much more common than we're all willing to talk about, that's going to impact people in a positive manner."
You are not alone. If you or a loved one are struggling today, please reach out for support.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): nami.org
NAMI MN: namimn.org | 651-645-2948
This is the fifth installment of our Getting Open series. Check out earlier features and keep an eye on the Vikings digital platforms for upcoming features:
By: Lindsey Young