This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Kristina Miller is the mother of Harry Miller, the former Ohio State offensive lineman who recently announced he would be medically retiring from football, and who appeared on TODAY this week to discuss his mental health struggles and share a message to others who are struggling. Here, his mother opens up about what the journey was like from her perspective — and how we can all better support student athletes.
Seeing your child in so much pain, like I have with Harry, is nearly unbearable. As a surgical technologist, I’ve scrubbed in the operating room for over 30 years — I’m used to seeing a problem and fixing a problem. Depression doesn’t work that way. When Harry called that late Tuesday night last August to say he “couldn’t do this anymore,” our family flipped into crisis mode. I can’t say I was surprised, exactly. I had been worried about his mental health.
I packed a bag, jumped in my car and drove from our home in Georgia to Ohio at 3 a.m. to be with Harry and offer support. In the meantime, I instructed Harry to meet with his coach — Ryan Day of the Ohio State football program — as soon as possible. They arranged to meet the following day.
When I arrived in Ohio, I had no idea how long I would stay; it turned out to be six weeks for that visit. We quickly fell into a comfortable routine: cooking, listening to music and going for long walks by the river while Harry received the professional care he so desperately needed. I asked Harry if he wanted to come home to finish school — that was a hard no. He loves Ohio State, he loves learning, he loves engineering, and he expressed how his classes were actually a welcome distraction that held his bad thoughts at bay.
When I left, I literally begged Harry: “Please don’t leave me,” and he promised he wouldn’t.
When I left, I literally begged Harry: “Please don’t leave me,” and he promised he wouldn’t. I cried the entire eight-hour ride home praying I would see my baby again. It was extremely difficult, and it consumed every part of my being every second, every day.
The past eight months have been unequivocally the worst of our lives, filled with hope and then setbacks. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to sleep. It’s hard to concentrate. The crippling fear that my child won’t be there the next time I call or text for our daily check-in is terrifying. That’s how we’ve managed — with regular in-person visits and daily check-ins, even if it’s just a thumbs-up emoji because sometimes that is all someone who is depressed can muster the energy for.
Things seemed to be going well — until they weren’t. By December, we felt Harry pulling away, being unresponsive, even angry. Our concern was at an all-new high. Over Christmas vacation, we agreed that we wouldn’t discuss school, football or even his health, because that’s what he wanted. We spent a week relaxing at the beach and just being together. It was truly perfect.
But we hadn’t discussed any of the issues that were concerning us. My husband and I told Harry we were coming up to Ohio in January to visit him and talk. To be honest, I was a little mad. I wanted to know why he was pulling away. Was it because he’s about to turn 21? Did we do something to make him angry? Was he still depressed? We didn’t know, but we were going to find out.
We weren’t prepared for what we found in Ohio: a bloody box cutter and a son who was telling everyone (doctors, coaches, parents, friends) what he thought they wanted to hear. The pain in his eyes was evident. We talked, cried and together decided it was time to step away from football. Truth be told, I’m fairly certain he had already made this decision but was so afraid of disappointing us and everyone else that he was willing to sacrifice himself. I have no doubt that continuing that way would have resulted in a very different outcome.
How I think we can help support the mental health of our athletes
- If you’re the parent of an athlete, let their coaches do the coaching. They don’t need that from you, too. Your job is to parent and offer support. I’ve been guilty of it, but now I cringe when I hear parents yelling at their kids from the sidelines.
- Remind your children that their identity is not football, softball, basketball or anything else. That’s what they do, not who they are. One day that sport will end and if they don’t know who they are, they will be lost. They are so much more than the game they play.
- If you’re a fan, do not send negative messages to student athletes — ever. This should be obvious, but in our experience, it isn’t. This isn’t “what they signed up for.” They signed up for long days, rigorous training, playing to the best of their ability and representing the school you cheer for — not death threats, pleas to commit suicide or requests to transfer because “you suck.”
- If you’re a coach, know the warning signs of depression and be sure to get your athlete the help they need, and follow up regularly.
- To everyone: Don’t be afraid to have hard conversations. It’s OK to ask someone if they are sad, depressed or thinking about suicide or harming themselves — that conversation could make all the difference. And if you’re suffering, reach out to someone you trust. Find a counselor and start talking. You are not alone. Don’t give up.
While this isn’t the journey we had expected for our son, it is perhaps an even greater mission than we could have imagined. Admittedly, I spent some time being angry that our son was suffering so terribly and that my plan for him seemed to be falling apart. What I’m learning is that this new plan is so much more impactful and important, and as long as Harry is willing to be a voice and a face of mental health for others to relate to, we will support him in every way possible.