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David Freese is the strongest player in Major League Baseball

In opening up about his struggles with clinical depression, substance abuse, and mental health, the Pirates third baseman demonstrates some amazing courage.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When a ballplayer gets hurt on the field, our response is immediate. We sympathize. We worry. And we understand. It’s immediately clear that something has gone wrong when a baserunner grabs their hamstring or lies dazed after colliding with a teammate. We’ve even gotten better in recent years at understanding how brain injuries need to be given time to heal.

We’re also very understanding when players get sick. Who doesn’t empathize with flu-like symptoms (when they’re the actual flu, not when guys are hungover)? Or have a cancer diagnosis. Or diabetes. People are frail. We all get sick. It’s awful.

But we’re not good at understanding every illness. In particular, I’m thinking about the one that David Freese has. Because, as he told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, David Freese has clinical depression. And despite it being amazingly common (the NIH estimates that 16 million people had at least one depressive episode in the United States in 2012) and debilitating, we don’t really get it. We make jokes about it and minimize its potentially devastating effects.

But depression clearly has a massive effect on Freese, who told Nightengale “he…was a tormented man who battled just to get out of bed. He would wake up mornings, slam his eye lids shut, wishing he were dead.”

“I was depressed. I was always depressed…. I didn’t care about my life. I didn’t care what would happen to me. It was almost to a point that if this is my time, so be it?

“And there was definitely a lack of care about my well-being at certain times, for sure.”

This lack of self-care manifested in driving drunk after drinking binges and a car accident that almost killed him in 2013. Freese was self-destructive and his lack of regard for himself put others at risk. Thank God he managed to not hit anyone. Through it all, amazingly, Freese played ball. And played it well. It’s a testament to his natural talent that he didn’t destroy everything he had worked for.

And now he’s recovering. Treatment has helped. So has having a stronger support network that includes his new wife.

We don’t know how many ballplayers are suffering from depression. Evan Gattis has opened up about his struggles. Aubrey Huff contemplated suicide after his playing career ended. Zack Greinke and Joey Votto have both fought through mental illness to find success. But on the other hand, Khalil Greene, Dontrelle Willis, Justin Duchscherer, Ian Snell, and Hong-Chih Kuo all had difficulty getting their careers back on track. And guys like Eric Show and Tommy Hanson, both of whose struggles against depression led them to use drugs to self-medicate, eventually died from their addictions.

Major League Baseball is an insular culture and few players are willing to admit if they’re having mental problems. For one thing, ballplayers excel when they can compartmentalize their lives on the field and in the clubhouse. They’re exceptionally good at stuffing emotions down deep inside to be able to focus on their jobs. Also, in the hyper-competitive environment that is MLB, guys are especially unwilling to risk being labeled “soft” or “head cases” or “mentally weak.”

They also don’t want to have to deal with dirtballs like this, who insist on seeing depression not as an illness like any other, but as a case of the sads. Depression, however, has less to do with what happens to you and more to do with how you feel about yourself. And if you can’t see that you’re worthy of the happiness that so many others seem to have, you’re constantly undermining your ability to feel it and can never get there.

Anyway, this is a long way to go to say we don’t know nearly enough about depression in Major League Baseball. Freese is one of the few big leaguers willing to talk about his struggles. This doesn’t mark him as a liability to the Pirates, but as one of the strongest guys in the Majors today. To not only fight, and beat back, this enemy, but also expose himself to the rest of us takes a ferocity that I don’t think many of us will ever understand. He raises awareness of this important issue and, God willing, will inspire more of his colleagues—and more fans—to get the help they need before it’s too late..

To learn more about depression, a great resource is Make It Ok.org. Two fantastic podcasts about depression and mental illness are The Hilarious World of Depression with John Moe, in which he talks to creative and funny people who struggle with it, and The Mental Illness Happy Hour with Paul Gilmartin. If you are need immediate assistance, free, confidential help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.