Tragedy of The Atkinson Twins Calls Us All to Care More About One Another

I know that everyone is busy with Christmas shopping and other holiday preparations. Finishing year-end projects. Planning gatherings with family, friends and business colleagues.

For Notre Dame football fans, there’s the anticipation of Sunday’s bowl announcement, and for some, making travel plans to follow the Irish.

But, as it happens, we’re interrupted by “real life in real time.”

The news that former ND running back and kick returner George Atkinson III, 27, died earlier this week.

You spend just a few minutes delving into the story, and you’re met with utter heartbreak.

George and his twin brother Josh were raised, until age 13, by their mother, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which led to drug addiction. It was a highly chaotic situation until their father took over, and it left numerous scars and trauma never fully processed by the boys.

Under their father’s belated guidance, they straightened out their academics, honed their athletic prowess and earned football scholarships to Notre Dame. Yet the pain of their difficult childhood remained.

In October of 2018, their mother died of complications of Crohns disease. The brothers were devastated, and felt a special guilt over the difficult decision to take her off life support.

On Christmas Day, 2018, Josh Atkinson hung himself.

Recently, pained by the first anniversary of losing both his mother and twin brother, George took the healthy step of sharing publicly his family’s agonizing story. His piece, “How I Turned My Losses into Lessons,” appears on the remarkable website The Unsealed, where founder Lauren Brill invites people to write about their lives, and asks readers to support organizations in their name.

The piece by George Atkinson III was linked to raising funds for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) — San Francisco. In it, he talks of his own battle with depression, and thoughts of harming himself. Upon seeing a psychologist he says, “I went to seek help…. I realized I had to let go of this ego that made me think sharing my feelings was showing weakness. Also, I had to learn to love myself.”

Lauren Brill worked closely with George on his letter, and her writing upon learning of his death — He Lost His Life But He Left His Lesson… — is itself heart-wrenching. “Heartbroken, shocked and devastated are the emotions I am feeling,” she writes. “My tears are dripping down my face, as my brain spins in circles.”

These are emotions known by any family touched by suicide, as mine was 29 years ago when my brother took his life at age 44, leaving behind a wife and two young sons. I remember feeling as though I had been run over by a truck – everything hurt, tears wouldn’t stop, and the question of “Why” hung like a weight around me.

A common response is ‘What could I have done to help?”  In Lauren’s case, she wonders “why I texted on Thanksgiving instead of called. How did I not know that his birthday was this past week? And why didn’t I just check in more and ask, ‘How are you?’”

But there is always more to it than that.

The dark places of deep depression form impenetrable walls that close in on the mind. Those of us with milder forms of depression get a sense of the dread, even if we are able to largely function in something resembling a normal fashion.

Mental illness is real. It is debilitating. And it is treatable.

And it starts with removing the stigma of the illness – a challenge we are all faced with. Who among us would question a loved one seeking treatment for cancer? It must be the same way with mental illness. Resources are available; no one should be questioned for seeking help.

In our work with the Knute Rockne Memorial Society, we take great joy in celebrating the achievements and leadership of incredible winners — the Rocky Bleiers, Muffet McGraws and Alan Pages.

But the Notre Dame family extends far and wide, and includes, like any portion of the population, its share of those who struggle daily, some due to depression and its associated effects.

It’s fair to ask the question: Is Notre Dame, which does much to nurture the mental, physical, social and spiritual development of its students, doing all it can to meet its responsibility of addressing life after football for its student-athletes?  Certainly, there are athletes who struggle with the loss of ego and identity when the cheering stops, and find themselves ill-prepared to make the next strategic steps in life. Dr. Amber Sellking has worked the past couple of seasons as team psychologist, representing a strong advancement in the recognition of a holistic approach to nurturing the student-athlete going forward.

But it’s work that all of us are called to perform.

Let’s take a moment – no, let’s dedicate ourselves fully – to lifting one another up, to encouraging all things that foster mental health. Inquiring how the other is doing, sharing an uplifting activity, suggesting professional help when it may be needed.

In the name of the Atkinson family, let’s make it our mission.