Mind over Matter: Athletes Advocating for Mental Health (By Zachary Draves)
It is the month of May and for many it conjures up images of the school year ending, flowers blooming, leaves growing back on trees, and first breath of fresh air signifying the end of long and bitter winter (at least for those of us from the Midwest), but May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. This is a time for us to have discussions and advocate, as we should for every month of the year, for mental well being for all, something this country doesn’t prioritize in the least bit. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.7 million adults are living with mental illness, about 1 in 5 adults. Approximately 9 million adults live with severe mental illness. Among youth ages 13-18, 21.4% experience a severe mental illness at some point in there lives, whereas children ages 8-15 is at a rate of 13%. Mental illness is something that affects all of us regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, and ethnicity. Mental illness is everyone’s issue, but unfortunately our society doesn’t treat it as such. We live in a world where mental health is not only prioritized, but is dangerously criminalized and where institutions that are supposed to provide care and treatment have been systemically destroyed since the 1980’s. We live in a world where people living with mental illness are often referred to as “crazy”, “psycho”, “nuts”, “wacko”, and so on. We live in a world where acts of violence are often linked with mental illness without people understanding that violence is a learned behavior and NOT caused by mental illness. These narratives have a vicious affect and the sports world is not immune. Sadly, there have been instances where athletes are often mocked when they disclosed that they are in therapy or the inability of society to promote well being and seeking help has lead to athletes to take their own lives such as Andre Waters, Junior Seau, Dick Trickle, Tyler Hilinksi, and Alexis Arguello. May there names never be forgotten. There is a disgraceful lack of resources and programs in place that specifically caters to the mental well being of athletes, but there a select group of athletes that have used their platform to tell their own stories and to advocate for a world where mental illness is no longer something to be ashamed of. These athletes give us hope and for that they deserve to be honored.
Without question the greatest tennis player of all time, if not the greatest athlete of this particular era, Serena Williams has been a champion both on and off the court. Most can spend all talking about her accomplishments on the court, but when it comes to speaking out for others, she is at the top of her game. From her support of the Black Lives Matter movement to her and her beloved sister Venus’s crusade for equal pay for female tennis players, Serena is a tireless advocate for those who don’t have a voice and that includes sharing her own personal struggles to inspire others. In 2011, Serena revealed that she was battling depression after winning Wimbledon the year before due to health scares such as blood clots and an injury to her foot. She has also spoke up about battling with postpartum depression after recently giving birth to her daughter. She also spoke lovingly about how her daughter has helped her mental health.
The most decorated Olympian ever may swim in water, but that doesn’t mean he can walk on it. Michael Phelps amazed us for so many years with his seemingly un-human like ability to muster his way to Olympic gold time after time. Michael has been outspoken in year recent about his continued battle with depression and even spoke candidly about thoughts of suicide. He spoke about the period after the Olympics in 2004 in Athens when he went through a major depression that he said contributed to him getting a DUI later that year or after his legendary performance in Beijing in 2008 when he was famously photographed smoking a bong. Michael talked about how those down periods in between the Olympics contributed to his depression and even thoughts of suicide, which is not uncommon among many athletes. Michael is now a vocal mental health advocate and has even implemented stress management programs through his foundation and the Boys and Girls Club of America.
Metta World Peace
He is best remembered for climbing into the stands to attack a fan who threw a drink at him during a nationally televised NBA game and at that time he was known as Ron Artest. Now referred to as Metta World Peace, he became a household name after the infamous 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers of which he was a member of. He was suspended for the rest of the season and from that point on he navigated throughout the league with a target on his back. He later joined the Los Angeles Lakers and helped them to win the NBA title in 2010, but by that time, he had a new focus. He spoke openly about his struggles with mental health. He donated all of his salary for the 2011-2012 NBA season to mental health charities and after the Lakers won the title in 2010, he publicly thanked his psychologist. He advocated for legislation geared towards mental well being and his example has become a pillar of hope, particularly for African American men and boys trying to break out of the oppressive systems of both racism and hypermasculinity.
From the sunshine of California to the bitter cold of the Midwest, Kevin Love’s journey to success didn’t come without struggle. The former UCLA graduate, Minnesota Timberwolf, and now NBA champion hopeful Cleveland Cavalier recently penned an essay for The Player’s Tribune in which he opened up about his battles with panic attacks and him being in therapy. Kevin spoke about how the importance of mental well being isn’t just prone to athletes, but to everyone. His story and along with many others have now led the NBA to begin implementing a mental health program. Kevin is also breaking the box of manhood that precludes men from expressing vulnerability.
He was referred to as the “mystery draft pick” both for his skills on the court and for his public disclosure of battling an anxiety disorder. Royce White was set to become a standout for the Houston Rockets in 2012 but he spoke up about the lack of a mental health policy in the NBA and began to advocate for one. That led him to miss every game the following season and him to go play pro basketball in Canada. Royce is now a global mental health advocate and is at the forefront of ensuring that mental health is not rendered invisible in professional sports and beyond.
She was a major contributor to one of sports greatest dynasties and helped the WNBA flourish, but her personal struggles and her tireless activism have made her a legend in her own time. Chamique Holdsclaw helped lead the Tennessee Volunteers to three consecutive NCAA championships in 1990’s under the guise of the legendary Pat Summit. She joined the WNBA in 1999 as a member of the Washington Mystics, won Rookie of the Year, was the scoring champion in 2002, and led the U.S. women’s team to gold in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Off the court, Chamique has been vocal about her battles with depression throughout her career and even attempted suicide at one point. She is now a mental health advocate and speaks at colleges/universities across the country.
She is the fresh young star thriving in the Windy City and she is a breath of fresh air to combating the stigma of mental health. Imani Boyette of the Chicago Sky is a WNBA standout and recently she gave an interview to USA Today discussing her struggles with depression and moments of self harm. She described how she felt that suicide would have been a way to relieve the emotional pain. Imani is now advocating for more compassion and understanding around mental health, particularly in the African American community.
Success on the world stage and winning multiple Olympic medals didn’t guarantee pure happiness for Allison Schmidt. Before she competed as a swimmer in Rio in 2016, she sought help from her psychologist for treatment due to depression. Allison spoke about how the pressures to being a top athlete and the expectations that come with being an athlete led her to compete her condition a secret. Once that affected her performance, she sought help and some could argue that once she got help she was on her way to gold.
These heroes and sheroes have used their platforms as springboards to wake us all up to the reality that mental health is real and that nobody should have to suffer in silence, including those who are supposedly the epitome of strength.