I’m all ears at a round table discussion with Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Western and Southern Open(Photo Credit W&S Open)
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — There’s an illness lurking among us that’s just as debilitating and deadly as the Coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19 and all its variants, however, this ailment has been around since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, we’ve been hesitant to even acknowledge that it exists. We’ve buried it, blocked it out, and barricaded it behind closed doors in hopes that it’ll just go away.
Until now, that is.
With Simone Biles exiting the team competition in the Tokyo Olympics in order to “protect her mind,” perhaps the importance of mental health awareness will finally get the attention it rightly deserves. After all, if one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time—on arguably the biggest stage in sports—admits to needing some emotional help, then maybe the rest of the world will finally start listening.
Biles isn’t alone. Earlier this year, four-time tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a standoff about her refusal to speak with media during press conferences. The Japanese American tennis icon admitted that she suffered from long bouts of depression and tried to explain how she was struggling in coping with all the stresses of stardom.
Even before Biles and Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his battles with anxiety and depression. After retiring from active competition, the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games—winner of twenty-eight medals across five Olympics—has since become a huge mental health advocate. And yet, despite the tireless efforts of his foundation to trumpet the cause, nobody seems to have truly gotten his message either.
“We’re human beings,” Phelps poignantly stated the other night when asked about the circumstances surrounding Biles. “Nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters.”
A little closer to home, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari also addressed the fragile emotional state of his team earlier this summer. The pandemic, together with the unspeakably tragic deaths of not one but two of their teammates, had Coach Cal on heightened alert regarding his players’ mental health.
“I’m not an expert on why it would be rising,” Calipari answered, when asked about the skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people. “This pandemic rocked everybody…We had players last year meeting with some psychologists. We did…It’s overwhelming…We just went through Ben [Jordan] passing away, and then Terrence [Clarke]. You throw that onto the plate of these kids. And that’s why I was doing as many individuals [workout sessions] as I could do. At the end of the day, I’m not a—quote—professional. Sometimes that needs to be involved in this.”
Hang on. Before you say this issue is only about spoiled athletes going soft, you better think again. Depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders are ubiquitous—whether we’re famous celebrities or just “ordinary Joes” trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at the top of our game or struggling to make ends meet. These conditions are insidious, they’re pervasive, always prowling around looking to devour you when you least expect it.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16.2 million people in the United States will have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. That translates to a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorders of 16.9 percent among adults. That’s more than one in six of us. Not only that, but the biggest cause of disability in the worldwide workforce also happens to be depression related. We’re not talking about calling in sick due to a bad back, the flu, or the far-reaching effects of hypertension or diabetes. Nope—we’re talking mental health issues, period.
“The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those [difficult] times,” Phelps emphasized. “It was hard for me to ask for help.”
And therein lies the danger from all of these mood disorders. It’s hard to ask for help. Because of that reluctance to reach out, those afflicted are often at high risk of suicide. Tragically, fifteen percent of those individuals living with recurrent depressive disorder will subsequently die by suicide. That’s way too many. In fact, it’s heartbreakingly unacceptable. Why the heck are people so reluctant to seek help when needed?
One word, pure and simple: STIGMA! Unlike other common physical illnesses—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—mental health disorders are buried in bias. They aren’t your typical “casserole illnesses.” In other words, when you’re recovering from a broken leg, or an emergency appendectomy, or even cancer chemotherapy, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are quick to stop by with a casserole to comfort you.
Not so with mood disorders. There’s a stigma attached—some sort of guilt, embarrassment, or shame—as if you’re walking around with a big scarlet letter painted on your forehead. No one knows what to say or do about it. No one wants to admit that they’re suffering from it. All they know is that others who haven’t experienced it are understandably clueless. It’s not a condition that you can just easily “snap out of.”
So, what can we do to help? The most important thing we can do is to STOP THE STIGMA! Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and all the various other co-occurring mental health conditions are not radically different than normal physical ailments of the body such as hypertension or diabetes. The only major distinction is that these disorders affect the person’s brain rather than their pancreas.
The sad reality is that many of our friends and loved ones suffer needlessly (and often silently) from these relentless brain diseases. During those instances, compassion and empathy are key. It’s up to us to first acknowledge their illness and then encourage them—as Coach Cal said—to seek professional help as needed.
For many, recovery may signal a long and arduous road ahead. All too often, however, people never even begin the journey. Counseling and therapy are excellent starting points. Medications—although not foolproof—can frequently work wonders. Later on, through continued public advocacy through organizations like NAMI, we can hopefully move towards getting everybody the proper help that they so desperately need.
For now, do your part to stop the stigma. Let’s all become mental health advocates. Show compassion. Be empathetic. Make a difference. Help a friend. Save a life.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, author, and editor-in-chief of www.JustTheCats.com. He currently teaches the NAMI Family-to-Family course to family members with a loved one suffering from mental illness. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
(NICHOLASVILLE, Ky.) – Scott Smith walks triumphantly off the 18th green of The Champions course at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. His smile says it all. The affable 64-year-old dentist from Pikeville, and a big UK sports fan, has just fulfilled a once-in-a-lifetime dream by playing in his first professional golf tournament.
Although the pro-am portion of the 2021 Barbasol Championships isn’t technically part of the official Thursday through Sunday rounds, Scott realizes this will be as close as he ever gets to experiencing PGA glory firsthand. He and his playing partner, Gary Brown—a Paintsville dentist—have just spent the last six hours in paradise, crushing towering drives, sinking crucial putts, and hobnobbing and trading strokes and jokes with comedian Scott Henry and tour professionals Joseph Bramlett and Greg Chalmers.
For a man whose passion for golf can’t be overstated, this ethereal experience is as close to heaven on earth as Scott can imagine. His wife, Jenny, jokingly told me that Scott’s long-term goal was simply to retire with just enough money so that he could play golf the rest of his life. For George Scott Smith and other serious golf junkies, that’s the best and only reason for growing your 401K.
If you think, however, that is just another ordinary run-of-the-mill, feel-good golf story, then think again. Because life is fragile for all of us, especially right now for Scott and Jenny. Just a week before this past Christmas, the couple received the medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. A CT scan had revealed a tumor on Scott’s pancreas that subsequently metastasized to his liver. The prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is understandably dire. Without treatment, the experts tell Scott that he has six months to a year and a half to live. Even with appropriate chemotherapy, the average life expectancy only stretches out to about three years.
Sadly, those of us who have been around for a while are all too familiar with stories of family members and friends unfairly stricken down in their prime. In those moments, life can feel overwhelming—like an inopportune slice, or more appropriately, like one big shank. If we’re honest, we’ve all given thought to how we ourselves might react when confronted with our own mortality. Would we cower in fear, fall apart, and shake our fist at God and cry out, “Why me?”
“The emotions are incredible,” Scott recalled, when explaining how he felt when the doctor delivered the news. “The first thing you think of is your children and your wife—how they are going to be and how you’re going to leave them. You also think about what you’re going to be going through and how this can be possible. I was a healthy individual who did basically everything. I snow skied, I played racquetball, and I played golf, so how can I be sick? That’s almost incomprehensible.”
Scott, a father of two grown boys, was born in Pikeville to a homemaker mom and a dad who owned a Chevron gas station. He pumped gas at the station beginning when he was twelve and quickly realized he didn’t want to do that for the next fifty years. While most of his teenage friends at the time had unrealistic dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Scott knew exactly where his career was headed.
“I went to the dentist when I was in the 8th grade,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘This is great. I love this. I think this would be something I’d be interested in doing.’ And believe it or not, I ended up doing it. How many people in the 8th grade think they know what they want to do and end up actually doing it? That’s pretty unusual.”
Here’s what else was unusual. Scott was an exceptional athlete in high school. He played in four different sports—basketball, football, track, and baseball—which all sent teams to the state tournament. When it came time to pick a college, he was accepted into West Point but turned down the prestigious military academy because he knew he wanted to go to dental school. Four years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky followed by an additional four years at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (Class of ’84), and those prescient, 8th-grader plans for a career in dentistry suddenly materialized into reality.
Returning to his Pikeville roots, Scott started his hometown dental practice from scratch. Thirty-six years later, he was still practicing full time—up until the fateful cancer diagnosis—providing much-needed dental care for the good citizens of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. During many of those three decades, Scott worked tirelessly in his office from Monday morning until Thursday at noon. Then it was off to the local links for the rest of the extended weekend to focus on his ultimate passion—playing golf.
That passion started early on. Scott remembers asking for a set of clubs for Christmas when he was about twelve years old.
“Neither of my parents knew much about golf,” he said. “They got me a five iron. That was it. They bought me a single club.”
The Smith family didn’t belong to the highfalutin country club when Scott was growing up either. They had to drive thirty miles to Jenny Wiley State Park in order to play. Scott piddled around with his clubs in high school but didn’t really play seriously until he got to UK, where he finally had access to several quality golf courses.
When asked what about the game got him so hooked, the overachiever in Scott became readily apparent.
“It’s so competitive, and yet you can play by yourself,” he admitted. “You’re always trying to beat par. It’s something that you can never achieve perfection with. There is no such thing. That just enthralled me. There is no finish line.”
The worrisome symptoms began last summer with occasional bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Hoping it was all just diet related, Scott put off seeing a doctor thinking the discomfort would eventually pass. When the home remedies didn’t work and the digestive problems started escalating, Jenny finally convinced him to seek medical advice.
“Two days after I had my scan done, my family physician called me,” Scott recounted. “He said, ‘I need to see you in the office first thing on Monday morning.’”
Scott and Jenny knew the news would not be good. Two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, they were in Baltimore seeing a specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical. With five additional malignant spots on his liver, Scott’s condition was deemed inoperable, and he was sent back to Lexington for a clinical trial at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.
For the spouse and other loved ones, the cancer treatment experience can be surreal. Actually it’s more like a living hell—often more so for the spouse than for the one who is actually ill. Listening to Jenny describe the agonizing six weeks of the pulverizing nature of the clinical trial is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most calloused eye. Seeing your loved one—once so vibrant, active, and full of life—endure brutal cycles of unending malaise, nausea and vomiting, brain fog, and radical weight loss zaps you to the core of your very own existence. Your mind can go to some pretty dark places during those times.
However, just when things appeared hopeless, there came a small ray of sunshine. Out of the blue, Scott received an unexpected surprise.
Augusta Here We Come!
It’s often deemed the toughest ticket in sports. People wanting to witness the beauty and pageantry of Augusta National often wait decades before getting a fleeting chance to buy those golden tickets. Miraculously, Scott was there to witness The Masters with his own eyes in April of this year. How, you ask?
“Some buddies from my college Sigma Chi fraternity all got together and did that for me,” Scott answered. “They got me the entry tickets. They even provided a house for my family. I got to take both of my boys. I got to go with Jenny. One day I got to go with Jenny’s son, Evan. It was unreal. That is something I would never do for myself. It’s something I dreamed of but would never pull the trigger on myself.”
For Scott, watching the best players in the world play up close and personal was a fascinating experience. With Covid protocols still in place, attendance was limited, so the lucky patrons on the golf course could literally rub elbows with all the players. Television coverage also doesn’t do the course justice—especially the dramatic elevation changes. Because it’s so hilly, Scott had no choice but to ride around in a scooter (a motorized wheelchair) in his weakened state.
A memorable moment occurred when Scott and a fellow scooter rider struck up a conversation. The other man was missing both his feet. After sharing their stories, Scott discovers the man had his feet amputated because of diabetes.
“He told me he liked Chips Ahoy cookies more than his feet,” Scott said. “We then joked about racing around the course in our carts.”
The man happened to be the father of Bryson DeChambeau—the winner of the 2020 US Open. How cool was that?
Jenny describes the entire Masters experience differently. Scott felt sick most of the time. For Jenny, it was hauntingly bittersweet: an opportunity of a lifetime tempered by the specter of a sick spouse, a ticking time clock, and a terminal illness. We get it. How could anyone fully appreciate the azaleas in bloom, Amen Corner, and the iconic pimiento cheese sandwiches at a time like this?
Another Bucket List Opportunity
After six weeks of the merciless clinical trial, a new CT scan indicated a 30-percent shrinkage of the pancreatic tumor. Unfortunately, additional lesions had metastasized to the liver, so Scott was kicked out of the experimental group.
He’s now back on a standard chemotherapeutic regimen for pancreatic cancer. He’s completed three rounds so far and is scheduled for three more rounds every other Tuesday. Then they’ll do another CT scan to determine how effective the treatment has been.
Luckily, this pro-am Wednesday fell squarely between chemo treatments, and Scott was feeling fairly spry. He’s put on some much-needed weight and doesn’t feel tired all the time like he did at Augusta. Never one to seek the spotlight, he was worried about how this feature story would unfold. But how he ended up here at the Barbasol is the one tale he eagerly wanted to tell.
“The guys at my golf club back home all got together and pitched in and knew that this would be a bucket list thing for me to participate in something like this,” Scott explained. “And literally they all got in and chipped in and paid for my entry fee.”
The guys he’s talking about belong to the Green Meadow Country Club in Pikeville. And although the $7500 pairing fee is significant, it’s not just the monetary amount that makes Scott so appreciative. It’s the act of friendship that speaks volumes to him. Gary Brown, his former dental school classmate and playing partner today, had called the guys at the country club to set the wheels in motion.
“When they first told me I would be playing in the Barbasol, I thought for sure they were pulling a joke on me,” Scott reluctantly admitted. “Then when I found out that it was true, I just was overwhelmed. The thought of friendship that deep is pretty amazing. It’s something that I would never do for myself. For me to do this on my own, I would feel like it’s very selfish and ridiculous. But for something they would do for me, it just blows me away. Absolutely makes me weak.”
Faith to the Rescue
What struck me most when speaking with Scott Smith was just how calm he’s been during this whole ordeal. There’s a peaceful countenance about him that’s hard for many to understand. It truly is a peace that surpasses all understanding. After all, who can grasp why tragedies like this happen to such good people? I asked Scott to explain it to me.
“I’m in a real good place in my mind as far as that goes,” he readily conceded. “Faith is huge and very important to me. I know that things happen for a reason and we’re all here for a certain amount of time. I feel really good about whatever’s coming. Truthfully, I’m okay with it.”
Not only is he okay with it, but Scott—who calls Southland Christian his church home—has never questioned these timeless spiritual mysteries. He’s never been one to wallow in self-pity or direct his anger towards his heavenly creator.
“Oddly enough not yet,” he pushed back. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. I haven’t been through the ‘why me’ and ‘this isn’t fair.’ I haven’t gone through those emotions. Maybe I will. I honestly don’t know why I’m in this situation. Just the cards you’re dealt. Everybody is on a different playing field. I remember telling Jenny years ago that I wanted to enjoy life and experience different things and different places with her. I said, ‘You never know when you might get hit by a bus.’ This may be my bus. So now we’re trying to do as many things as we can and experience as much as possible while we can.”
The Barbasol Pro-Am certainly qualifies as one of those special experiences Scott talks about. One of the most exciting rounds of his life gets off to a bit of shaky start, but Scott soon finds his groove. A tricky five-foot putt for a birdie on eleven, an artistic chip out of the sand to within three feet of the cup on twelve, and Scott quickly settles into his element. It’s readily apparent to all that he’s played this game before.
Scott’s biggest fan is his lovely wife, Jenny. She walks the entire 18 holes—a six-and-a-half-hour marathon round under the blazing afternoon sun—silently screaming for her husband’s ball to find every fairway, to gently plop on every green, and to get in every hole. She knows how much this day means to Scott.
The two met on a blind date, and about a year-and-a-half later they were married. It’s been wedded bliss for the couple for the past ten years—until the bus arrived.
It’s been a helluva bus ride for Jenny this past year also. She lost her mom, had another dear friend die unexpectedly, watched another family member battle colon cancer…and now this. I look at her radiant smile, and I wonder how she does it. I need to know. I ask her about it point blank.
“I often sense God’s presence, and sometimes I really think he speaks to me,” she answered unhesitantly. “He said, ‘I chose you to be with Scott, during this time of his life.’”
Devout faith, divine guidance, unconditional love…we should all be so lucky.
He’s exhausted but exhilarated. Who wouldn’t be after playing with a couple of tour professionals, of having your name announced on the first tee, and of seeing the skyboxes surrounding the greens and cameras everywhere?
I asked Scott what stood out to him the most.
“My great appreciation goes out to my Green Meadow Country Club pals who made everything possible with their generosity,” he said. “[Also] sharing the experience with my wife. Having my two boys, Max and Hunter, surprise me by being there. They saw me facing the final hole. My tee shot over the lake, crossed safely, even landing on the green. I knew God was looking over me. I felt blessed to have such a great experience. Thank you, Lord!”
There are a lot of parallels between golf and life. The more time you have, the better you get at both. For most people, it takes patience, resolve, and a heavy dose of wisdom to navigate both courses successfully. Occasionally for people like Scott, the two worlds intersect to provide valuable life lessons for finishing strong.
“The golf course has always been an outlet of peace and a place for me to go to forget about things,” Scott clarified. “You learn to concentrate on just your golf game and the next shot. I won’t know what my next shot will be until the next CT scan comes out. But that’s the way I look at it. That’ll be my next shot. It’ll let us know what road we’re headed down, what fairway we’re in, or if we hit the green or not, or if we’re in the sand trap.”
Scott holds it together until the end of our visit when the talk circles back to his mortality and his time left on earth. He wants to say something to the people he’ll leave behind. His thoughts appear to scramble as he struggles to find the right words.
“Take care of Jenny,” he finally blurts out, his eyes overflowing with tears. “She’s been incredible. To take care of her. That would be the thing that I would hope the most for. She’s taken care of me. And I knew she could, and I knew she would. But to see her doing what she’s doing—it’s pretty amazing.”
If God hands out mulligans in life, I’ll ask for one right here. Prayers up! Stop the bus. It’s time for the next big shot.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. He covers University of Kentucky and professional sports for Nolan Group Media, Sports View America, and JustTheCats.com. His book “Cut To The Chase” is now available on amazon. His newest release, “Kentucky Passion—Wildcat Wisdom and Inspiration,” is scheduled for October (IU Press).