49ers great Steve Young opens up on mental health and his struggles with anxiety

MENLO PARK — Steve Young, like so many others with mental health issues, grew adept at hiding them. Until about second grade, he grew so unnerved any time he was away from his parents that Sherry Young would walk him to school every day and stick around in the classroom, too. To avoid embarrassment, they told the other kids she was the class mother.

As Steve got slightly older, he developed a clever cover for whenever friends asked him to spend the night. He’d put on his exaggerated athlete swagger and grumble, “Nah, I got practice in the morning.”

He required a more elaborate ploy the time his parents wanted to get away for a brief vacation. Sherry and Grit tried driving off for a weekend alone, just a few hours away, but Steve quickly convinced his younger siblings that the babysitter was an ax murderer. One frantic call later, his mom and dad were making a U-turn and heading home.

Young had shared his mental health struggles before, but a charity banquet for the non-profit Child Mind Institute on April 25 was the first time he’d done so to help sound a national alarm. It was the first time he’d done so during a pandemic that has left school children feeling isolated and socially stifled. It was the first time he’d done so on what was essentially the eve of Mental Health Awareness Month, with former teammates Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Harris Barton looking on from the audience.

“I didn’t know this, but I grew up with severe childhood separation anxiety,’’ Young, now 60, explained from the stage. “All I knew was that I didn’t sleep over at other people’s houses. I had straight A’s, I didn’t miss a day of school, and I was captain of three sports. I mean, if you knew me back then you’d say, ‘That kid’s killin’ it.’ Because I was killing it. But if you said, ‘Hey, wanna sleep over at my house?’ The answer was: ‘It isn’t happening.’”

Young spent so much of his early life trying to avoid facing his struggles that the famous Lon Simmons play-by-play call for the wild run against the Vikings in 1988 — “He gets away again! … He gets away AGAIN!” — would also befit the quarterback’s ability to elude a proper diagnosis.

But it’s a tricky thing to escape when you are anointed as the heir to Joe Montana during the 49ers dynasty. Joe Cool made it look easy. Steve Anxiety not so much.

As Young wrote in his autobiography:

I long to be the best quarterback in the NFL.

I dread being the best quarterback in the NFL.

“I wasn’t built for that from a clinical perspective,” Young said on stage. “But there is another part of me that wasn’t afraid to go at a competition. If the sun was up, I was killing it. When the sun went down, things went south.”

And as his 30s arrived, he nearly snapped. Young’s nerves had always flared up as game day approached. His life was miserable starting on Thursdays for as long as he played. But the ramp-up to an Oct. 13, 1991, game against the Atlanta Falcons at Candlestick Park felt like something different.

Thursday: After his first sleepless night, Young was such a mess he skipped practice by calling in sick (with the flu or some such; he certainly didn’t say it was anxiety).

Friday: After his second sleepless night, Young told himself, “I need to figure this out.”

Saturday: After his third sleepless night, the Bay Area family Young was staying with saw enough signs of his unraveling that they insisted that he seek help. “And I for the first time in my life,” he said, “I actually admitted to myself: ‘This is not right.’ That’s how far it took it.”

With more nudging from the family, the future Hall of Famer made a deal with them, and with himself: If he led the 49ers to a victory over the Falcons, he would seek the help of a medical professional.

If we win,’’ he emphasized at the time. “Because you can’t show weakness, right? You can’t say that there’s something wrong if you lose, because then it’s an excuse. But if we win, I’ll talk to the team doctor and tell him that something’s not right.”

It was around this point of Young’s speech at the Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club that the easy-listening soundtrack of so many charity golf banquets came to a record-scratch halt. The tinkling glasses and soft chortles gave way to rapt silence. Forks stilled. Wine aged. Coughs waited their turn.

The roughly 120 people at the event included 49ers CEO Jed York, and also notable Bay Area athletes like Barry Bonds and Brandi Chastain as well as what-the-heck random athletes like golfer Mike Weir and former baseball speedster Vince Coleman.

But at this moment of his speech, Young fixed his gaze on the doctor in the house. Dr. Harold Koplewicz is the founding president and the medical director of the Child Mind Institute, and he’s at the forefront of addressing the burgeoning mental health crisis among children.

“Harold, I can’t tell you how grateful I am just talking to you and your integrity for how you run the shop, and how you have maintained independence from the drug companies,’’ Young said before driving home his next three words. “You. Mean. Business. It tugs at my heart, what you’re doing.

“And I really wish that for every young kid, for any little Steve Youngs running around, that somehow someone can say, ‘Hey, is everything OK?’ And that the little Steve Young would be OK to say, ‘I’m not sure. Something’s not right.’  … Simple stuff like that will make all the difference.”

Barry Bonds, right, and Ronnie Lott, two of the Bay Area’s hardest hitters, joined forces to campaign for better mental health resources in Silicon Valley.

Harold Koplewicz likes leaning on athletes to help spread his message because it underscores that mental illness has no correlation to physical strength or willpower. On that front, his MVP is Simone Biles, the decorated Olympic gymnast who abruptly bowed out of the individual all-around competition at the 2020 Games citing mental health concerns.

The Child Mind Institute honored Biles with the inaugural Trailblazer Award last November.

“What made her a hero, for me, was the fact that she was willing to say, ‘It’s not that I’m weak, it’s that I’m just not myself. I’m more anxious and more worried,’’’ Koplewicz said in an interview a few hours before Young took the stage. “And the fact that she could do that literally gives girls and boys across the country permission to say, ‘You know, if an Olympian can do that, I can, I can speak up, too. And I can get help.’”

Biles’ timing was profound. As the New York Times noted recently, mental health disorders are surging among adolescents: In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60 percent increase from 2007. Suicide rates, stable from 2000 to 2007, leaped nearly 60 percent by 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Think about that,’’ Koplewicz said. “If that was the increase in asthma deaths, if that was the increase in heart disease, in kidney failure, it would be considered a national emergency. … The one silver lining I see from the pandemic is that it encouraged people to start talking about mental health more openly and has incentivized parents to pay more attention to the mental health of their kids.”

The problem keeps growing, and the industry can hardly keep pace. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, of the 3 million American adolescents who experienced major depression in 2020, almost two-thirds received no treatment. It is essentially the mission of the Child Mind Institute to provide resources to deal with these exploding numbers. More than 75 percent of the children reached by this non-profit have received free or cost-reduced services, according to its website. It has reached roughly 35,000 students through mental health treatments, support groups and classroom coaching.

Dr. Harold Koplewicz, first-row center, is a strong advocate for child mental health and likes to turn to athletes to help spread the message that anxiety can disrupt even the strongest bodies.

The institute was founded in New York City in 2009 and added a San Mateo clinic in 2019. Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back, is a Child Mind Institute donor as well as part of its West Coast advisory board. The doctors there welcome him as yet another icon of strength willing to talk about vulnerability.

“I think it reminds people is that even at the highest level of competition, even with people you think of that have the mental fortitude that is absolutely superhuman, it can still be something where their mental health affects them the same as everyone else,’’ said Dr. David Anderson, the institute’s vice president of school and community programs. “And that’s true of so much of the treatment that we do.

“Whether we’re treating someone who is extremely wealthy, whether we’re treating somebody who does not have means … we’re all struggling with similar things. The mental health struggle unites everyone.”

Young was the only athlete to speak on stage during the evening program, but he was hardly alone in his sentiment. Weir, the longtime PGA Tour pro and winner of the 2003 Masters Tournament, said that golf is such a mental game that players often work with sports psychologists. Most of those sessions are performance-related, such as how to maintain focus or handle a bad stretch, but Weir said he used to talk to his doctor all the time about the pressure he felt about being the Next Big Thing coming out of Canada and “the weight I felt on my shoulders each and every time I went out there.”

“When you get certain high-profile athletes — I’m thinking like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles — talking about the pressures and anxieties,” Weir said, “I think that frees up other athletes to talk about it and feel OK about realizing people shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It’s OK to ask for help when you need it.”

Coleman, who launched his career with three consecutive seasons of 100-plus steals starting with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985, joked that he was motivated to come to the event for one simple reason: “Whatever Ronnie Lott does, I want to be involved because I know it’s a good cause.”

But Coleman also said he was increasingly troubled by the mental health landscape in the U.S.

“You hear so many reasons why kids commit suicide — you know, being bullied,” Coleman, now 60, said. “There’s a lot of things that can be tapped into, but a lot of kids are probably afraid or don’t know how to open up. That’s the part of this — how to reach out to kids — that I think can be addressed in a way that we can help.”

Young lost to the Falcons after that sleepless week that nearly drove him to his breaking point in 1991. But it’s worth noting that on this stage — and with this crowd — he misremembered it as a victory.

“I mean, it’s insanity to think that I played pretty well, and we won,’’ he said.

But the record (including Young’s own book) reflects that the Falcons defeated the 49ers 39-34, even though he threw for 348 yards with two touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards and two TDs.

He did win, though, even if his personal triumph came long after the final horn.

Young recalled tending to his wounds in the decrepit Candlestick Park locker room, wearing a towel and icing his arm, when he spotted team doctor James Klint — a man he called “Reggie” — making his way through the thicket of aching, exhausted bodies.

“Klint is coming up, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I promised these folks I would talk to him. And I know it’s the right thing to do,’’’ Young recalled on stage. “But I was nervous because Reggie was an older guy who was around for all the Super Bowls and all that. He’s the king. I was nervous. I’m like, ‘Ah, I don’t know how to do this. What am I going to say?’

“And finally, I just pulled him into a dark corner … into this little recess of Candlestick Park where you could feel something dripping on you, probably beer.”

The scene wasn’t exactly the warm embrace of the psychiatrist’s couch, but it was good enough for Young to finally just let it all out. The not sleeping. His racing mind. The increasing panic whenever game day approached.

The grizzled football doc reacted in a way Young never expected. Klint soothed him with compassion, empathy and a clear path of instructions. He directed Young to immediately see his friend Dr. Stanley Fischman, who specialized in child psychology and had a small office in Mountain View.

“Reggie said, ‘Steve, what you’re suffering from is undiagnosed severe childhood separation anxiety,’’’ Young recalled. “I’ve been playing pro ball for five, six, seven years, you know? I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?!?’

“But the next day, I went to the child psychologist, and we’re having a conversation and he asked me 10 questions. And if you answer yes to eight of them, then you have this severe thing — and I answered 10 of them ‘yes.’ It was like just classic! How is it that I’m (30) years old and I finally have a name for this crazy thing?”

Ronnie Lott (left), Vince Coleman (center) and Steve Young helped raise $400,000 for the non-profit Child Mind Institute.

The New York Times story explained that the number of residential treatment facilities for people under the age of 18 fell to 592 in 2020 from 848 in 2012, a 30 percent decline, according to the most recent federal government survey. The Times wrote that the decline is partly a result of well-intentioned policy changes that did not foresee a surge in mental health cases.

“Now the amazing part is that in a place like the Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area, with two world-class children’s hospitals, we don’t have a single psychiatric bed at either one of those hospitals,’’ Koplewicz said. “It is a medical hub, but not for child mental health disorders. And there are pockets of real poverty here. And there’s a certain amount of adverse experiences that a kid can have.

“Mental health disorders are equal opportunity disorders — rich, poor, White, Black, it doesn’t really make a difference — everyone is primed for it. Certainly, kids who are living in poverty, kids who are living with violence, kids who are living with less routine and with less structure are going to be more and more susceptible to showing symptoms of these disorders.”

This charity banquet raised more than $400,000 to address the issue of more resources. It also helped raise awareness and will continue to do so. On Thursday, the Child Mind Institute will add Young’s “Dare to Share” video to its website, where other celebrities, such as Pink, open up about their own struggles and how they found the courage to ask for help.

Young famously celebrated his Super Bowl XXIX victory by asking linebacker Gary Plummer to take the mythical monkey off his back after years of being tormented by wretched losses on the biggest stage. The way he spoke on stage conveyed a similar air of joy and relief. When he was done with his remarks, Chastain — on behalf of the entire audience — bolted from her seat, beelined across the dining room and greeted Young coming off the stage with a sustained hug. She beat Coleman, the six-time stolen base champ, by five steps.

“I really do look at it simply as being lost in the woods when a park ranger comes by,’’ Young said near the end of his speech. “Would you feel ashamed to ask him for directions? No, you’d be an idiot not to ask him for directions.

“I want the same kind of experience for everyone as we make this less shameful. It would be foolish not to seek help for mental health. We need to lose that fear about getting that help. If I break my leg, I don’t walk around without a cast. Come on! It’s just stupid.

“So let’s not be stupid. Let’s be smart. Let’s ask the park ranger for direction so we don’t keep bumping into the same stupid tree. Right?”

• To find out more about mental health, visit childmind.org 

(All photos: Courtesy of Carmen Holt Photography)

By Percy