The stigma accompanying mental illness is finally beginning to lift, thanks to better treatments and public education efforts such as HealthPartners’ “Make It OK” campaign. But sadly, not everyone has gotten the message, as the response to Vikings player Everson Griffen’s mental health struggles has revealed.
As the details emerged about the Pro Bowl defensive end’s erratic behavior and police run-in, one well-intentioned Viking spiked the football far too early, tweeting, “I’m pleased to say that I haven’t seen a single tweet that doesn’t support Everson Griffen working toward full recovery before contemplating a return to football. We’ve come a long way.”
The reply from the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) was sobering. “Unfortunately we have and shame on them.” A glance at NAMI-Minnesota’s Twitter account backs this up. The organization has repeatedly called out ill-informed comments and those cracking jokes at Griffen’s expense.
The pushback is commendable, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Compassion is the only correct response as Griffen seeks care. He and his family merit the same sympathy from Minnesotans and his team as if they were grappling with any other medical condition. Minnesotans have an opportunity here to be a model for other teams and, more importantly, for all who have family or friends struggling with mental health concerns.
Statistics show that includes many Americans. “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent — experiences mental illness in a given year,” according to NAMI. “Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. — 9.8 million, or 4.0 percent — experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
No one is immune. Mental illness crosses economic, racial and demographic lines. As Griffen’s situation reminds us, even elite athletes may be affected. By supporting the defensive end, Minnesotans can set an example that helps ensure that others who are not well known get the support and treatment they need.
The Vikings appear to be taking that leadership responsibility seriously. The team confirmed to an editorial writer that it’s committed to their players’ physical and mental well-being and will make available every possible resource to players and their families. A “development department” within the team’s organization has long been there to help players with off-field issues such as mental health concerns.
That commitment is admirable, and the team’s confirmation addresses questions raised by the Minnetrista police incident report about the team’s handling of Griffen’s situation. The report suggested that the team had sent Griffen a letter on Sept. 20 saying he was “not allowed back until he has a mental health evaluation.” ESPN reported Wednesday that no such letter had been sent.
The police report does makes it clear that officers Michael Kokesh and Justin Thompson handled the call about Griffen with calm and compassion. Despite reports of threatening behavior, the officers quickly recognized that the priority was getting Griffen the medical care he needed.
That’s not always been the case with Minnesota law enforcement. A 2017 state law that mandates training for officers in several critical areas — including mental health crises and de-escalation — is a good start in addressing this. But some agencies are pushing to go beyond this minimum by having their officers take lengthier, more specific instruction on mental health calls. Griffen’s heartbreaking, high-profile struggle should spur all law enforcement agencies to consider these valuable extra steps.