Iowa football's Sean Welsh will no longer suffer depression in silence

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sean Welsh was preparing for his debut season as an Iowa offensive lineman in 2014 when the first signs of crippling depression started to appear.

He found less pleasure in football, in food, in being around teammates. He spent hours asleep in front of the television while negative thoughts flooded his mind.

“It was every dimension of terrible,” Welsh told a hushed room of reporters at Iowa’s football complex Wednesday, acknowledging his disease publicly for the first time. “And I kept wondering what was wrong.”

Sean Welsh, a star offensive lineman for the Iowa Hawkeyes, was front and center among teammates at last summer's team media day. He says those teammates have not treated him any differently since he revealed recently that he's battled depression for three seasons.

Welsh took the first timid steps toward therapy but returned to football, starting 10 games as a redshirt freshman that fall. But depression wasn’t done with him yet.

By the spring of 2015, Welsh said he was in a “downward spiral,” at one point not leaving his room for three days. He stepped away from the team, returned to his Ohio home and was officially diagnosed with depression, a disease he was told he has a genetic predisposition to suffer from.

“I was weighing whether I wanted to play or not,” Welsh said of his football career. “I was too proud to go in to see anyone about depression, but I was too proud to quit football because of depression. So I’ve learned both sides of pride.”

IOWA'S SEAN WELSH: A first-person account on depression, his toughest opponent

Welsh started taking medication and was a stalwart of Iowa’s offensive line again in 2015 during a 12-0 regular season. Yet he couldn’t shake the effects of his disease. Last summer, he left the Hawkeyes for a week to again get his depression under control.

Recently, the senior told his teammates about his condition. On Wednesday, he stepped up to a microphone and told the world, reading a five-minute statement before answering questions. The goal, he said, is to inspire others suffering from depression to seek help.

Welsh said he’s found that it gets easier to talk about with each new person he tells.

“When you’re going through a bout of depression, the biggest thing that I think in my experience has been, ‘This isn’t how it’s going to be forever.’ Just knowing that when you’re in the thick of it, it’s kind of a battle between your emotions and logic,” Welsh said.

“It’s a lot more complex than a football injury. You have to talk about it and you have to treat it differently.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he was shocked when Welsh first confided in him three years ago. He had watched Welsh excel on the football field and in the classroom and had not picked up on any signs that he was struggling to adjust to college.

Welsh has started 35 games for the Hawkeyes, and has spent four years as a member of the team’s leadership group. He is one of three Iowa seniors picked to attend the Big Ten Conference’s media days in Chicago on Monday, when he will no doubt be asked repeatedly to tell his story to a wider audience.

“I totally got blindsided,” Ferentz said of first learning what Welsh was facing. “It was like, ‘Wow. Here’s a guy who’s really doing well, and now he’s going to walk away?’ That didn’t add up.”

Ferentz said he’s learned that depression is not uncommon and praised Welsh for dealing with it and for coming forward to share his story. He, his son and assistant coach Brian Ferentz, and strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle were aware of Welsh’s struggles and worked with counselors constantly to make sure they weren’t going to say or do anything to exacerbate the problem.

“You never know what’s going on in someone’s mind,” Ferentz said. “If you’re an educator or a coach, and certainly a parent — boy, you’re just always on your toes. You have to be.”

READ HAWKEYE NEWS FOR FREE: Download the Hawk Central app for iPhone, Android and follow us on Facebook

Welsh said he didn’t show signs of depression until he got to college. But that’s typical for those who suffer from mental health problems, according to Paula Keeton, the associate director of the University of Iowa's counseling service. The onset of mental health issues predominantly occurs between ages 18 and 24, she said, estimating that about 40 percent of the students her staff sees exhibit some type of depressive syndrome.

Dr. Jess Fiedorowicz, a psychiatrist who directs the mood disorder center at the university, said the most recent data suggest 6 percent of people will deal with depression in any given year, and 16 percent of us will battle it in our lifetimes. The World Health Organization lists depression as the leading cause of disability.

“It’s frequently not diagnosed,” Fiedorowicz said. “People often don’t seek treatment, and it’s a matter of pride. That’s why (Welsh is) really a hero today by coming out and hopefully making others that might be suffering from this condition less afraid to come forward and less afraid to get help.”

Depression is considered a disease, Fiedorowicz said. And the term often causes confusion among people who just equate it with moments of sadness.

“It’s not the same. This is a medical syndrome akin to pneumonia,” Fiedorowicz said. “Persistent and disabling.”

Welsh said he’s able to control his disease by taking medication daily and by forming a routine, something to make sure he’s occupied. He needs to stay around people, like his teammates. He said they’ve been understanding.

“The thing I’ve wanted since Day 1 is just to be treated like any other guy on the team, and that’s what they’ve really given me,” Welsh said. “From the moment I told them about it to now, they haven’t treated me any differently.”