One in six. 44.7 million. 18.3 percent. That’s how many people age 18 or older live with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Almost every adult in this country knows six other people. There is virtually no chance that you don’t know someone who fights one of these battles. Please think about that for a moment. Take the time to count out six people in your life who mean something to you.
Have any of those six people ever come forward and told you that they experience some sort of day-to-day struggle against, maybe, an anxiety or depression-related disorder?
If your answer was yes, then that’s not a problem at all. It’s not hard to be a good friend to someone who lives with a mental health issue. Simply check in often. Listen when they speak to you about it. More importantly, listen when they don’t wish to speak about it.
If your answer was no, then you are now privy to extremely disturbing information. Many people with mental illnesses choose silence over assistance. They would like to believe that they are nobody’s problem to be solved; no one’s burden to bear.
Or maybe you count yourself within the ranks of those who have to live life followed by this particular shadow. I do. So do some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve ever met.
It’s not discriminatory. Mental illness, regardless of “severity,” affects people of every race, religion, social status and tax bracket.
Just ask Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.
Love and DeRozan will make a combined $155,577,000 by the end of the 2019-20 NBA season. They’re provided with free travel, hotel accommodations, meals, training facilities, clothes and shoes. They both have lucrative sponsorship deals. On top of that, they’ll both get a share of the $20 million bonus that’s divided up between every player that participates in the NBA playoffs.
That money didn’t stop Kevin Love from having a full-blown panic attack during the third quarter of a game against the Hawks on Nov. 5. It didn’t keep DeRozan from tweeting a rather telling song lyric.
This depression get the best of me…
— DeMar DeRozan (@DeMar_DeRozan) February 17, 2018
In an interview with The Star, published on Feb 25, DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression. In it, he says, “We all got feelings… all of that. Sometimes… it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”
Most telling was the short statement in which the 28-year-old speaks on the roller coaster that life with depression can be. He says that he has “various nights,” alleging that any given day could hold myriad emotions and states of mind. He said his life has always been that way.
Just nine days later, Kevin Love published an article with The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” The story chronicles his own previously repressed conflicts with his own mental health.
He reflects on unlearning a playbook of behaviors taught to most men and boys that caused him to ignore any previous signs that he might need some support. Instead, over 29 years, he substituted healthy coping mechanisms with often-adopted strategy of “manning up.”
We are all human
It’s easy to see athletes as real-life superheroes. Seeing the kind of athleticism they exhibit night in and night out can cause the public to paint them as something they’re not: mythical creatures who were put on this Earth to entertain us in a modern-day gladiator arena.
It’s what causes people like Laura Ingraham to tell LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” As if being an athlete somehow bars you from having opinions and ideas about the world you live in.
I’ll admit that I’ve been part of that problem. It’s hard not to when you watch Aaron Rodgers execute three Hail-Mary touchdowns in the same calendar year, or when you see Michael Jordan dunk from the free-throw line. The incredible feats we see on any given night are almost laughably impossible.
But once they shed their uniforms and step away from the flashing lights, they’re just people.
That was the common thread through both Love and DeRozan’s stories. The idea that everyone is vulnerable and nobody is immune to this kind of problem.
The most eye-opening part of Kevin Love’s article was his detailed description of his panic attack. After a timeout in the third quarter, Love knew he was not physically able to re-enter the game, but couldn’t quite get a grasp on what was happening. He retreated to the Cavaliers’ locker room knowing something wasn’t right.
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. (Kevin Love, “Everyone Is Going Through Something)
Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows the exact feeling he is talking about. It’s a frightening experience that is hard to put into words. To someone who may not know what a panic attack looks or feels like, it may seem silly or overdramatic. But allow me to give you my thoughts on this particular passage.
I’m someone who has not only dealt with this kind of thing before, but who writes for a living and has extensive creative writing education as a part of my college degree. With that being said, I have never in my life thought of anything that quite explains a panic attack as well as “looking for something I couldn’t find.” That is exactly what it feels like. A sense of indescribable hopelessness and fear, as if nothing is going to be alright ever again.
He may be 6-foot-10 and carry double-double career average, but in that moment, he probably felt the same way so many of us have: paralyzed, small, weak and scared.
Knowing how we put athletes on a literal and figurative pedestal, it must have been unspeakably hard to come forward like DeRozan and Love have. Their stories have been met with support from fans and players alike, but showing vulnerability like this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody. So, try to imagine what it must have been like unveiling these things when the eyes of the world are upon them.
Men, women, boys and girls look up to them. They dream of achieving the invincibility and everlasting admiration of being a professional athlete. The idea that even one of these people would perceive some sort of weakness of character for coming forward with this personal information must have been hard to cope with.
But, as DeRozan said in his admission of his battle with depression, “we’re all human.” All the credit in the world goes to them for showing the individuals who look up to athletes that no battle needs to be fought alone.
In a Feb. 19 interview with SB Nation, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts spoke on NBA players’ mental wellness.
“We’ve been naive — I’m being kind when I say naive — in thinking that we didn’t have to address and make sure that we were giving as much attention to our players’ mental wellness, as we were their physical.” (Michele Roberts via SB Nation)
This quote and interview were before the DeRozan article was made public. That suggests, perhaps, this is more pressing of an issue than can be expressed by just two players coming forward.
Roberts went on to say that development of a mental health program is in its “early stages,” and that the NBPA has only made one hire. But work is being done and progress is being made in regards to tending to mental wellness.
She wants the program to be funded by the players’ union and NBA teams, yet have it operated separately from both. She cites potential concerns regarding players not utilizing the resource because they are afraid that information would affect their standing within the team.
Confidentiality would be paramount to the program, which speaks to the larger stigma surrounding the topic of mental health. Especially in the hyper-masculine world of professional men’s basketball.
Significance in sports
The mental health conversation in this country needs to continue to grow and change. If over 18 percent of the American adult population experiences something, we need to talk about it.
The problem is, so many mental health issues can be ignored, ill-defined, or even misdiagnosed. I’m not an expert, but it seems as if conversation and openness about what ails someone is the best place to start.
That’s why these two coming forward could signal a paradigm shift. Public figures seen as folk heroes by many, telling the world that even they are not exempt from these feelings can, should and has garnered attention.
Love and DeRozan are not the first athletes to admit to these kinds of problems though.
Picabo Street, Ricky Williams, Joey Votto, Mike Tyson and many others have documented struggles with depression. Ken Griffey, Jr. took over 250 aspirin tablets during a suicide attempt in 1988. Rick Rypien, a Vancouver Canucks and Manitoba Moose center, succeeded in a suicide attempt in 2011. Kelly Oubre Jr. followed Love and DeRozan’s lead, just hours after Love’s article was published, opening up about his struggles on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards Tipoff Podcast.
Significance in culture
It’s hard to know how to frame all of that information. Maybe it does actually provide hope that these conversations can become more normal. But, it could also just be more info to sweep under the rug, so we can pretend it’s not happening.
These kinds of talks that we have with ourselves and others are uncomfortable. They are oppressive, difficult and complicated. What’s worse is that when depression is getting the best of you, you may not want to talk about it. When it’s not, you probably don’t want to bring yourself down by hashing it out.
Athletes, movie stars, musicians and politicians can all help steer us in the right direction when it comes to opening up. This is where “normal” people come into play.
When people in the public eye use their platform to talk about a cause that is important to them, it’s not just so they can hear themselves speak. It’s almost always because they want it discussed by the masses. They want to open up a dialogue.
Leonardo DiCaprio uses his platform to raise awareness about climate change. The main talking point at this year’s Academy Awards was putting an end to sexual assault. But all of this means nothing unless it affects the public in a way that causes conversation and change.
Love and DeRozan are not discussing their mental health because they want you to feel bad for them. That would be completely futile, because they are multi-millionaires living their dream of being professional basketball players.
They are opening up to change the way we talk about these issues. I can’t speak to their exact intentions, but my gut tells me they want people, who are in similar situations, to know that they’re not alone.
You’ll notice that not once in this article have I used the words “suffer from.” It’s a common phrase to put in front of mental health terminology. In my opinion, though, it’s overused and inaccurate.
People who experience some sort of mental health defect should not be told what they do and do not “suffer from.” They are not in some perpetual state of suffering. They are simply people who live their lives carrying some extra weight.
Living is an obligation. Suffering is a choice.
To those of you who know what it’s like to deal with some of these issues, or to those of you who act as an ally to them, please always remember this: Our struggles do not define us. However internalized or externalized our problems may be, they are just a part of us. Not our whole, but simply a piece of an intricate puzzle that makes us the people we are.
Sports are universal and eternal. They have a way of capturing our hearts and imaginations, just like the best movie you’ve ever seen, or your favorite album. That is why I choose to believe that these stories will resonate. Because if our “superheroes” can tell us that they aren’t perfect, then maybe we can all start to accept ourselves and others as such.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit this link which features only a small number of the wide range of resources that are available.
Featured image by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“From Our Haus to Yours”