Mental illness is a problem that millions of Americans deal with, and we need to end the stigma surrounding it and make mental health treatment more accessible for all. This is not a radical statement: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness each year. And in today’s polarized climate, the desire to improve mental health treatment and outcomes is one of those rare bipartisan sentiments that around which everyone rallies.
Unfortunately, it seems the only time that the need for better mental health care makes headlines is after a mass shooting.
Three weeks ago, after a former student at Stoneman Douglas High School returned to the school and killed 17 people, President Donald Trump told the nation, “I tell you what, I don’t want mentally ill people to have guns.” This built on the comments he made after 26 people were killed in the Sutherland Springs, Texas shooting last November, which he called a “mental health problem at the highest level.”
But centering our concern over mental illness around mass shootings isn’t just misleading; it’s dangerous. It adds to the stigma that keeps so many battling anxiety and depression suffering in silence.
Thankfully, three days after the shooting in Parkland, a much more productive conversation about mental illness began in an unexpected way, thanks to a 3:00 a.m. PT tweet by DeMar Rozan of the Toronto Raptors, who was in Los Angeles getting ready to play in the NBA All-Star game: “This depression get the best of me…,” the 28-year-old tweeted.
This depression get the best of me…
— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) February 17, 2018
DeRozan experienced an outpouring of support after his unexpected late-night confession, and the following week he opened up about his experience to the Toronto Star. He said that despite his success, financially and professionally, he still deals with bouts of depression, anxiety, and loneliness; from the outside, it looks like he’s on top of the world, but internally, he often feels like the world is on top of him.
“It’s not nothing I’m against or ashamed of. Now, at my age, I understand how many people go through it. Even if it’s just somebody can look at it like, ‘He goes through it and he’s still out there being successful and doing this,’ I’m OK with that,” DeRozan said.
DeRozan, who has a reputation for being reserved and private off of the court, decided to speak out because he wanted to help others. And, it turns out, one of the people who gained strength from his confession was one of his peers, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love.
This week, in a moving first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love revealed that on November 5, he had a panic attack in the middle of a game against the Atlanta Hawks. His description of the attack, which occurred during timeout in the second half of the game, was chilling.
The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out. When I got up to walk out of the huddle, I knew I couldn’t reenter the game — like, literally couldn’t do it physically.
Coach Lue came up to me. I think he could sense something was wrong. I blurted something like, “I’ll be right back,” and I ran back to the locker room. I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, You’re about to die. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe.
Love is one of the most accomplished basketball players in the world. He’s only 29 years old. And yet, in the middle of a basketball game, anxiety rendered him physically incapable of doing his job.
Before this experience, Love wrote that he viewed mental illness and talking about your problems as a “form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.” But that’s changed. He began going to a therapist regularly. He eventually opened up to his teammates about his problems. And, after he read DeRozan talk so openly about his troubles, Love decided to speak out too. He hasn’t been ostracized or mocked; instead, there’s been a non-stop outpouring of support, including from his legendary teammate, LeBron James.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 6, 2018
On Wednesday, 22-year-old Washington Wizards star Kelly Oubre continued this trend when he talked about how he’s dealt with depression and anxiety ever since his family was uprooted from their home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit.
“That shit is serious,” Oubre said. “I just go into a quiet place and breathe, man. Just being mindful is the only way I know how to get through any anxiety, any depression or anything like that.”
Now, DeRozan, Love, and Oubre are not the first professional athletes to speak up about mental illness. In 2012, former NBA player Royce White — who was a senior at Iowa State at the time — publicly disclosed that he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The next year, Canadian tennis pro Rebecca Marino announced that she was retiring from the WTA tour at the age of 22 because of depression (she’s currently on the comeback trail), and a couple of years later, American tennis player Mardy Fish talked candidly about the anxiety attacks and depression that contributed to the end of his professional career.
Former WNBA stars such as Chamique Holdsclaw and Lauren Jackson have also been candid about their struggles with depression, and current WNBA center Imani McGee-Stafford has been a fierce advocate for mental health awareness and treatment. That McGee-Stafford is speaking out on the issue as an active player is something of a rarity — it has been far more common for athletes to open up about their own experiences with mental illness after they retire from the game. Thanks to the conversations that DeRozan, Love, and Oubre have sparked over the last few weeks, that could change.
We tend to put successful athletes onto a pedestal, associating them with strength and success and discipline and health — traits that many consider antithetical with mental illness. That’s why it’s so powerful to hear about their struggles. It chips away at the myth that mental illness is weakness. It shatters the perception of mental illness as violence and derangement.
Mental illnesses impacts people from all walks of life. It doesn’t discriminate by race, gender, sexuality, class, profession, or age. It’s the rare thing that can tie together the stories of an NBA all-star and a struggling sports reporter. Mental illness doesn’t make you a mass murderer any more than it makes you an NBA champion.
The only way forward is to end the stigma; not perpetuate it.