B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly (13) is tackled by Edmonton Eskimos Martese Jackson (30) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Friday June 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

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

‘People should celebrate that you’re strong enough to be able to get help’

SURREY — 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.”

READ MORE: QB Reilly expected to sign $700K per year deal with B.C. Lions

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.”

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Touchstones Museum has opened up Nelson’s Cold War bunker to the public. The unique exhibit includes artifacts from the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Tyler Harper
Take cover! Cold War bunker opens to public in Nelson

The shelter was built in 1964 in case of nuclear fallout

Tanya Finley will run as the Nelson-Creston candidate for the BC Liberals in the upcoming election. Photo submitted
Tanya Finley will run as the Nelson-Creston candidate for the BC Liberals in the upcoming election. Photo submitted
Election 2020: Tanya Finley

The second of four interviews with the Nelson-Creston candidates

Nelson’s Brian Boyes has been awarded a provincial honour for coaching junior golfers. Photo: Submitted
Nelson golf coach wins provincial honour

Bryan Boyes was honoured for his work with young golfers

COVID-19 test tube. (Contributed)
test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
Interior Health launches online booking for COVID-19 tests

Testing is available to anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Volunteer registered nurse Stephanie Hamilton recieves a swab from a driver as she works at a Covid-19 testing site in the parking lot at Everett Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Everett, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
13 more COVID-19 cases in Interior Health region

There are 624 cases in the region since the start of the pandemic

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

Most Read