Chronicle - Tribune

Tyler Juranovich

Former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Keith O’Neil brought messages of both inspiration and hope to Marion on Tuesday.

O’Neil, who played on the 2007 Super Bowl winning Colts team, spoke about his struggle with mental illness at the Family Service Society’s 11th Annual Circle of Friends fundraiser event Tuesday afternoon at Indiana Wesleyan University’s Barnes Student Center and to student athletes at Marion High School.

O’Neil was diagnosed with bipolar disorder one in 2010 after dealing with the illness untreated for the majority of his life.

He told the crowd at the sold-out fundraiser from the ages of nine to 13 he was depressed and even suicidal.

“I remember looking at my parent’s medicine cabinet and wanting to take all the medicine,” O’Neil said. “Part of me wanted to die at that young age. It was scary.”

All throughout his youth and teenage years, O’Neil kept his struggle with the illness to himself mainly because the lows happened only sporadically.

“It’s hard to diagnose bipolar disorder in a young child,” O’Neil said. “I was just called a moody or lazy child.”

As he grew older and began pursuing his football career, O’Neil was faced with countless sleepless nights and days of anxiety.

His first stint in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys ended in 2005. Soon after, he was signed by the Colts. With a new team and a new environment, O’Neil said he thought the struggle was over, but he soon learned it wasn’t going to be that easy.

The head coach for the Colts Tony Dungy made it a priority to get O’Neil help, paring O’Neil with a therapist.

For the meantime that seemed to work, O’Neil said. There were less sleepless nights, anxiety and when playing in the Super Bowl he said had never felt better.

But the Super Bowl game would be the last one O’Neil ever played. He retired from the game to focus on his mental health, starting the Fourth and Forever Foundation to help anyone affected by mental health issues. The illness still affects O’Neil today, but he said he’s currently in recovery.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder, but I have made the most out of it,” he said. “I never thought I would get here with so many days with depression in the past.”

Lisa Dominisse, executive director of Family Service Society, said O’Neil’s message of perseverance and realization was one to admire and share.

“His story is important to share because it proves that a mental illness doesn’t have to ruin you,” she said. “His message was on point.”

Later in the day, O’Neil visited Marion High School to share his story with student athletes and tell them the importance of seeking help when needed from coaches and other adults.

“When you’re in high school, college or even the NFL, you can always ask for help,” O’Neil said.

Freshman James Bell said he found O’Neil’s speech and advice important.

“It was nice knowing that someone with a mental illness made it into the NFL,” Bell said. “It makes me feel like I can too.”

Marion High School Athletics Director Jamy Bechler said it’s important for athletes like O’Neil to tell other athletes admitting weakness is ok. He hoped students took what O’Neil said to heart.

“Athletes act tough and don’t want to admit weakness, but admitting weakness can become your biggest strength,” Bechler said.