B.C. Lions QB Mike Reilly sharing mental health battle to break down stigma

SURREY, B.C. — One of the CFL’s toughest players says he’s no longer afraid to face his mental health.

More than a year and a half after experiencing a terrifying bout of panic attacks and anxiety, B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly shared his experience in a stark piece for CFL.ca on Wednesday, saying he hopes it helps others dealing with similar issues.

“I just hope that (my story) empowers people to know that it’s not taboo and it’s not something people should frown upon,” the 34 year old told reporters at the Lions’ suburban training facility on Wednesday, just hours after the piece went live online.

“People should celebrate that you’re strong enough to be able to get help instead of worrying about how tough you are or how big your ego is or how scared you are.”

Reilly experienced his first panic attack at his off-season home in Seattle in January 2018. He was coming off another season as the league’s top passer, having thrown for 5,830 yards and 30 touchdowns for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2017.

He and his wife Emily had one infant daughter and another on the way when, one night, the football star lay down in bed only to find himself unable to breathe, his heart racing, gripped by the fear that he was about to die.

“The scariest part was that it was something new for me and something I hadn’t dealt with before,” Reilly said. ”I was scared that I was going to feel that way every day for the rest of my life. That’s a pretty rough place to be in.”

Over the next month, the 2015 Grey Cup MVP struggled with reconciling his recurring panic attacks and persistent anxiety with his image of being one of the CFL’s toughest athletes. He didn’t want to tell anyone — including his wife or his brother, a psychologist — what he was really going through. He worried with how he’d be viewed and that any issue would automatically be linked to a head injury.

“I thought of myself as a super tough guy. But there’s a difference between being tough and being dumb,” Reilly explained. “Being tough is one thing when you’re fighting through something on your own. But that was not a scenario where I was going to be able to just fight through and pretend it wasn’t happening. Once I finally realized that and got the help that I needed, it was life changing.”

Eventually he reached out, received support and learned various treatment tools, including journaling. The dark feelings and panic attacks quickly dissipated and he continued working to keep them at bay.

Reilly, who signed with the Lions as a free agent in February, said he hasn’t experienced any symptoms in more than a year and a half, but he still uses some of the tools and techniques he learned.

Today he has confidence that if anxiety ever encroaches again, he’ll be prepared.

“I don’t worry about it now during the day because I know that if I start to feel a little bit off, I can go and talk to people and it’s not going to be something where I’m going to be judged or I’m going to lose my career for it or things like that,” he said.

The experience has flipped how Reilly views mental health, from something that can be fought through by those who are tough enough to a medical condition that needs outside help.

“It’s something that didn’t square in my mind in the beginning and now when I look back on it, I can’t believe how wrong I was,” he said. ”It was a life lesson for me, for sure, and one that I’m fortunate to have had the pieces and people in place to get me the help that I needed.”

Now Reilly is joining a handful of other male professional athletes speaking about their personal journey in a bid to break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health.

NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have shared their own battles, while NHL goalie Robin Lehner recently spoke out about struggling with addiction, suicidal thoughts and bipolar disorder.

Reilly is also helping others by working with the B.C. arm of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and putting the $25,000 donation he earned from being last year’s top player of the week toward Foundry B.C., a group that helps youth access various mental health care and various other supports.

Speaking publicly has brought up some nerves for the quarterback, who prefers to keep his personal life personal.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory for me,” Reilly said. ”Any time I’ve been hurt, physically, I don’t talk about it. I’ve played through a lot of different injuries and I generally don’t like to talk about them. It’s generally something I deal with on my own.

“But this is not a physical injury. This is something that can and will affect a lot of people. Mental health touches so many different people and you don’t even know about it.”

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