By Jenna Fryer | AP Auto Racing Writer
Jason Myers spends his days as a stay-at-home dad for his two children, wondering how he can contribute to the household expenses so his wife won’t be forced to pick up a third job.
Among the things he’s considering is returning to school to train as a pastry chef.
It’s a world away from his old job in NASCAR, where Myers was a longtime mechanic for Roush Fenway Racing. He climbed through the ranks to car chief for Carl Edwards, a job second in command on a race team only to the crew chief. He was an integral part of Edwards’ nine-win, runner-up finish in the 2008 championship chase.
But he’s been out of work since he was fired in February, one week after a failed suicide attempt.
Myers says the three-day hospitalization that followed his suicide attempt was the wake-up call he needed to treat what he characterizes as “a major depressive disorder.” He’s now suing Roush Fenway for wrongful termination, claiming in a June 2 filing in Cabarrus County Superior Court that the organization violated the Family Medical Leave Act by firing him.
“When I needed help the most, they turned their back on me,” Myers said.
Roush Fenway on Tuesday filed a request to move the suit to federal court. Their response to Myers’ claims is due July 21.
But team president Geoff Smith had dismissed the suit as frivolous when it was filed.
“These are indeed litigious times,” Smith said in June. “These meritless claims would not be made at all in times of full employment in our industry, but in tough economic times, lottery tickets and lawsuits become more attractive. This is one of those times.”
Joshua Van Kampen, Myers’ lawyer, called Smith’s comparison “misguided.”
“The litigation process is just as stressful on the person bringing the suit as it is the defendant, and is a decision that is seldom made lightly,” Van Kampen said. “With Jason being terminated just 24 hours after submitting FMLA paperwork that substantiated his need for immediate medical treatment, and the fact that Roush’s alleged explanation for terminating him was illogical, we believe this is a hill worth charging.”
Myers first felt signs of depression during the 2007 season, but was too embarrassed to publicly discuss emotions and feelings of hopelessness in the testosterone-charged world of NASCAR. Instead, he stayed silent about his struggles, went undiagnosed and wasn’t even sure just what was wrong with him.
Myers said he attempted suicide twice during the 2008 season, and his wife, Jenny, informed crew chief Bob Osborne about an overdose on Tylenol that March. Myers contends Osborne told his wife that Myers would be fired if RFR management knew about the suicide attempt, and offered to explain his absence from work as a bad reaction to alcohol mixed with the insulin he takes to treat diabetes.
So Myers again kept his issues silent, and didn’t inform the team about an aborted suicide attempt that October.
There was no more hiding, though, when Myers made his most serious attempt at suicide in February during a day off from Daytona 500 preparations. Myers recalls driving around aimlessly that day “in a fog” and being unable to shake his feelings of despair. He said that he ingested between 25 and 30 Tylenol, along with 200 units of insulin on Tuesday, Feb. 10.
He said he doesn’t recall how he got to his home, where he was later found and taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he stayed for three days.
“When I woke up and finally had a clear head, I was like ‘OK, this is enough. I can’t keep living like this,”’ Myers said. “It’s hard to get to that point. You just keep everything bottled up because it’s embarrassing to talk about. It’s not the kind of thing you talk about in the garage. You don’t publicize that there is something wrong with you. It’s just not that kind of place.”
Myers said he was diagnosed during his hospital stay and encouraged to seek inpatient psychiatric treatment upon his discharge. He said his wife took the steps at Roush Fenway to pick up the paperwork for the FMLA certification forms, and the couple completed the paperwork as the team celebrated Matt Kenseth’s Daytona 500 victory.
Myers returned to work the day after the race and turned in the paperwork, but said he was informed one day later by the human resources director that he was being terminated for not reporting to work the previous Friday, the day after his hospital discharge.
“It made no sense,” said Myers, who says he reported to work that afternoon and was sent home by competition director Robbie Reiser.
Dismissed from Roush Fenway, where he had worked since 2002, Myers said he had to drain his 401k to pay for several weeks of inpatient care at an Arizona treatment facility. He estimated
his treatment cost $36,000.
Although the details of his illness and personal life were exposed in his court filing, he said he no longer feels shame about his depression and wants to publicize his struggle to potentially help others dealing with similar illnesses. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 5.4 percent of the U.S. population battles depression and only 40 percent of those with severe depression seek treatment.
“To me, I’ve been keeping stuff in for way too long and if the whole world has to know about it, so be it,” Myers said. “When you work for a team, your work is everything. You put everything you have into your job and there’s not a whole lot of time left for anything else. Personal issues get put on the back burner, and people tend to run away or ignore their problems.
“But depression is something that needs to be taken seriously. If me talking about it makes others see that, and see that you need to be open about it and get help for it, then that’s good. Nobody should have to lose their job because of this.”