Keith O’Neil and Bipolar Disorder

Michaela Zehring, Journalism I Student

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Keith O’Neil, a former linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, has faced some serious struggles in his life. While on paper it seems like he was pretty lucky on the inside he struggled with bipolar disorder. He first started off playing football in college for Northern Arizona University and in 2003 he was invited to play for the National Football League (NFL).

While he knows he is bipolar now, when he was playing in college and for the NFL he was unaware of it, and this caused a lot of issues for him. In September of 2005, he was supposed to play in his first pro game but he was unable to because his mental illness was holding him back.

“I was very excited to play for Coach Dungy and be part of such a great organization, but the stress and change proved to be a very negative trigger for my mental health.”

No matter how hard he tried he was not able to pull himself up and do what he was being paid to do. He would go nights on end without sleep, endless hours tossing and turning in bed. Self loathing was a big issue for him. Nights without sleep only opened the door for more issues.

When he was facing these problems he was doing it alone until he felt strong enough to reach out to his coach and let him know what was going on. “I finally went to Coach Dungy and said, ‘I need help’,” and it’s good he did because he probably would not be here now if he didn’t.

O’Neil recalls how grateful he is up to this day that his coach offered so much support and empathy when he was stuck in a really dark place.

His coach even went as far as to letting the team doctor and trainer know so that they could help him heal and be able to play any game without a doubt. Within weeks O’Neil was strong and confident enough to get back out on the field, not only that but after playing a couple games he was made team captain.

While he was able to get out and play a game he was still facing other problems, instead of reaching out for help he turned to alcohol. Luckily his good friend and teammate Kaaina Keawe was able to provide some support through this dark part of his life.

In 2012 Keith was able to received a lot more help then he ever had before, his parents saw what was wrong with him and took him to Dr. Steven Dubovsky, MD, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an expert in the field of pharmaceutical treatments for bipolar. By this time he has already experienced a lot of difficult things such as hallucinations and manic episodes.

He spent years of his career suffering with these issues and it wasn’t until 2012 when he was actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After he was diagnosed he decided to take a break from football even though he was invited to play for the New York Giants. O’Neil and his wife Jill decided to move to Buffalo to start up a new career in medical device sales.

Then his wife had a miscarriage and he stepped back on to his path of darkness. He spent $25,000 within days and started experiencing hallucinations again and this was at the point when he knew he needed medical help. When he did this he was prescribed medications and was able to stop these psychotic symptoms.

“The former name for bipolar disorder is manic depressive, and I really think that’s more accurate than bipolar. I went from being manic into a depression, and it was awful, I slept all the time. I was mentally in a cold, dark, sad place and no one could help me. Finding the right medications, along with my faith, has made all the difference in the world.”

Eventually O’Neil was able to have a son with his wife which gave him something positive to focus on. Now he makes it his goal to make sure that all ages are aware about mental illness and know the signs so that if they are suffering they can get help right away.