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CFL’s Mike Reilly sharing mental health battle to break down stigma

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about football player Mike Reilly.

One of the CFL’s toughest players says he’s no longer afraid to face his mental health.

More than a year and a half after experiencing a terrifying bout of panic attacks and anxiety, B.C. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly shared his experience in a stark piece for CFL.ca on Wednesday, saying he hopes it helps others dealing with similar issues.

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“I just hope that [my story] empowers people to know that it’s not taboo and it’s not something people should frown upon,” the 34 year old told reporters at the Lions’ suburban training facility on Wednesday, just hours after the piece went live online.

“People should celebrate that you’re strong enough to be able to get help instead of worrying about how tough you are or how big your ego is or how scared you are.”

Reilly experienced his first panic attack at his off-season home in Seattle in January 2018. He was coming off another season as the league’s top passer, having thrown for 5,830 yards and 30 touchdowns for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2017.

READ MORE: Reilly’s return to Edmonton spoiled as Eskimos beat Lions 39-23

He and his wife Emily had one infant daughter and another on the way when, one night, the football star lay down in bed only to find himself unable to breathe, his heart racing, gripped by the fear that he was about to die.

“The scariest part was that it was something new for me and something I hadn’t dealt with before,” Reilly said.

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“I was scared that I was going to feel that way every day for the rest of my life. That’s a pretty rough place to be in.”

READ MORE: Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly gets new Cadence

Watch below: (From August 2018) This week might go down as the busiest week in history for Edmonton Eskimos QB Mike Reilly. He welcomed daughter number two.

Click to play video: 'Meet Mike Reilly’s newest addition: baby Cadence' Meet Mike Reilly’s newest addition: baby Cadence
Meet Mike Reilly’s newest addition: baby Cadence – Aug 21, 2018

Over the next month, the 2015 Grey Cup MVP struggled with reconciling his recurring panic attacks and persistent anxiety with his image of being one of the CFL’s toughest athletes. He didn’t want to tell anyone — including his wife or his brother, a psychologist — what he was really going through. He worried with how he’d be viewed and that any issue would automatically be linked to a head injury.

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“I thought of myself as a super tough guy. But there’s a difference between being tough and being dumb,” Reilly explained.

“Being tough is one thing when you’re fighting through something on your own. But that was not a scenario where I was going to be able to just fight through and pretend it wasn’t happening. Once I finally realized that and got the help that I needed, it was life changing.”

READ MORE: Mike Reilly promotes Edmonton as ‘city of grit and love’

Watch below: (From Jan. 10, 2018) A video that describes Edmonton as a city of ‘grit and love’ is soliciting positive reaction online. It was posted by the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and features Mike Reilly.

Click to play video: 'EEDC video stars QB Mike Reilly' EEDC video stars QB Mike Reilly
EEDC video stars QB Mike Reilly – Jan 10, 2018

Eventually he reached out, received support and learned various treatment tools, including journaling. The dark feelings and panic attacks quickly dissipated and he continued working to keep them at bay.

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Reilly, who signed with the Lions as a free agent in February, said he hasn’t experienced any symptoms in more than a year and a half, but he still uses some of the tools and techniques he learned.

Today he has confidence that if anxiety ever encroaches again, he’ll be prepared.

“I don’t worry about it now during the day because I know that if I start to feel a little bit off, I can go and talk to people and it’s not going to be something where I’m going to be judged or I’m going to lose my career for it or things like that,” he said.

The experience has flipped how Reilly views mental health, from something that can be fought through by those who are tough enough to a medical condition that needs outside help.

“It’s something that didn’t square in my mind in the beginning and now when I look back on it, I can’t believe how wrong I was,” he said.

“It was a life lesson for me, for sure, and one that I’m fortunate to have had the pieces and people in place to get me the help that I needed.”

Now Reilly is joining a handful of other male professional athletes speaking about their personal journey in a bid to break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health.

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NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have shared their own battles, while NHL goalie Robin Lehner recently spoke out about struggling with addiction, suicidal thoughts and bipolar disorder.

READ MORE: Basketball fans publish letters of support after DeMar DeRozan comes forward about depression

Watch below: (From April 2018) Basketball player DeMar DeRozan was handed a published book full of supportive messages from his fans after the Compton native opened up about his mental health issues. Kamil Karamali has more.

Click to play video: 'DeRozan receives book of supportive messages after opening up about depression' DeRozan receives book of supportive messages after opening up about depression
DeRozan receives book of supportive messages after opening up about depression – Apr 8, 2018

Reilly is also helping others by working with the B.C. arm of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and putting the $25,000 donation he earned from being last year’s top player of the week toward Foundry B.C., a group that helps youth access various mental health care and various other supports.

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Speaking publicly has brought up some nerves for the quarterback, who prefers to keep his personal life personal.

Watch below: (From July 27, 2017) Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly and his eight-month-old daughter, Brooklyn, spent some quality time on the turf at Commonwealth Stadium following practice on Thursday.

Click to play video: 'Endearing moment between Mike Reilly, daughter caught on camera at Edmonton Eskimos practice' Endearing moment between Mike Reilly, daughter caught on camera at Edmonton Eskimos practice
Endearing moment between Mike Reilly, daughter caught on camera at Edmonton Eskimos practice – Jul 27, 2017

“It’s kind of uncharted territory for me,” Reilly said. “Any time I’ve been hurt, physically, I don’t talk about it. I’ve played through a lot of different injuries and I generally don’t like to talk about them. It’s generally something I deal with on my own.

“But this is not a physical injury. This is something that can and will affect a lot of people. Mental health touches so many different people and you don’t even know about it.”

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