“In the world of professional sports, no American athlete ever came back from a mental health disorder
… until Ron Artest.”
The NBA has made significant strides, leading professional athletics, in its response to the mental health of it’s players. In 2018, the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) launched a mental health and wellness program to provide players with greater access to mental health counselors. While as an organization this is remarkable, it is undoubtedly due to the driving forces and strength of current and former players. In raising awareness, the players within the NBA have an increasing willingness to share personal experiences, challenges and engage in discussion on issues that are often not acknowledged in the world of professional athletics. This has developed an atmosphere of comfort and security when opening up about lived experience or seeking support and treatment.
So often individuals living in any form of “spotlight” are seen as invincible, they have it all. However, beneath it all we are human; as said by DeMar DeRozan:
“no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day.”
In February of 2018, the Toronto Raptors guard, DeMar DeRozan posted a seven-word tweet that touched the lives of other professional athletes, as well as countless fans. Following this disclosure, he completed an interview for a story published in the Toronto Star detailing his lifelong battle with anxiety and depression, his hope was to help others feel seen and heard in their experiences. The tweet originally did not have a goal of being a mental health advocate, it was just a moment of his own reality, however to those in need it provided an acknowledgement that they were not alone. DeMar’s statements on his own mental health were profound; “it’s nothing I’m against or ashamed of […] I understand how many people go through it” – to have a icon to children, teens, young adults and adults nationwide normalize mental health needs breaks down barriers. This tweet was pivotal in igniting dialogue around mental health in professional athletics and altered the outcome of how the NBA and NBPA have approached mental health of players. To normalize dialogue around mental health can change outcomes in the lives of those around us.
Following DeMar’s tweet, Cleveland Cavaliers player Kevin Love published an article in The Players Tribune that furthered discussions on mental health, named “Everyone is Going Through Something”. In this he described, in detail, a panic attack he experienced that forced him out of a professional game. This led to a realization that this moment was a culmination of a lifelong battle with unmanaged anxiety and how he felt alone in his experience “If you’re suffering silently like I was, then you know how it can feel like nobody really gets it.” His words differed from DeMar’s, acknowledging the hesitation of many and validating the experiences of others “I didn’t even know if they were real. But it was real – as real as a broken hand or a sprained ankle. Since that day, almost everything about the way I think about my mental health has changed.” Love discussed his experiences in counseling and the historical stigma of weakness associated with this; in a beautiful way he credited DeMar’s tweet for giving him the strength to move forward telling his story. He identifies that he never guessed that this player he knew could’ve been struggling, he notes that while we don’t all have to rush and outpour our deepest darkest secrets we can work to create a better environment of speaking about mental health. One significant portion of this writing was the acknowledgement of being a male, and a male athlete. Growing up with words of be strong, and don’t talk about your feelings reporting that for 29 years mental health was “someone else’s problem”. I would use the link above to read Love’s exact detailing of his experience on this night, how he was looking in the moment for something he couldn’t find.
“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.”
These two outpourings of experience are so significant and so different. One is a simple acknowledgment of experience, validating and normalizing. Kevin Love truly explores the emotions associated with so many experiences of mental health; shame, fear, guilt, confusion. Kevin didn’t want to be perceived as less reliable now, it was a new experience he was confused as to what was happening with his body and his mind. He acknowledged the growth it took to attend therapy to find acceptance in his circumstance and his ongoing experience. It took time and strength to dismantle what his world had been built on. He also makes the acknowledgement that not everyone should run to a therapist, that the main goal is to acknowledge the fact that we need help. Help looks different for each of us.
Kevin Love continues to advocate for mental health awareness and acceptance today. Love has founded the Kevin Love Fund, which is active in partnership with Headspace, which works with individuals to enhance their physical and emotional well-being. Kevin works to open discussion and empower individuals to pursue mental wellness with the same vigor as they do physical health. Kevin was presented with the Champion Award at the 5th Annual Change Maker Awards for his work in advocacy for increased mental health awareness.
Keyon Dooling walked away from his dream in order to save himself. His story, published in The Players Tribune, is named “Running From a Ghost”. Take a moment to read his experience. Keyon is able to lend insight into how it felt to be seen, to feel valued, and to feel loved. Keyon divulges his childhood experiences, his trauma, and how this shaped his development in ways he never examined before. He reveals his growth and how he was able to learn that these events did not define him. Trauma reactive behaviors are an entirely different post, but from a clinical standpoint, Keyon Dooling uses a beautiful description which perfectly exemplifies how this comes to life for individuals every single day. Yet another example of using a platform to reach the experiences of others, to say it’s okay to take care of ourselves. Keyon also acknowledges the cultural barriers to mental health treatment in the African American community and how this was another layer to his acceptance and understanding of himself.
“When we have diabetes, we go get treated. When we tear our ACL, we go get surgery. But if our heart is broken, or if our soul is hurting, what do we do? We just internalize it.”Keyon Dooling
So where did this change for the NBA begin?
In 2004 “Malice at the Palace” as many will recall, a talented NBA star Ron Artest was involved in a brawl following a game at the Palace in Michigan, leading to the longest suspension in NBA history (not including those involving substances). This incident was stated to have left Ron’s reputation in ruins, his career over. However these discussions around mental health and support began with Ron many years prior, he was known among players and fans as “crazy”, “angry” and “tough”. The Malice at the Palace incident was a culmination of years of unresolved trauma and mental health needs. Ron shares in his documentary “Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story” his childhood, the internalized violence he observed both in his home and his community, the expectations of peers and street rules he learned by. Ron notably remarks even the basketball community he learned from, stating that when certain players would lose in pick-up basketball, guns would be drawn. The documentary highlights Ron’s journey and his challenges however it most notably acknowledges his growth. You watch Ron’s journey as he loses the ability to control his mood and subsequent functioning, his inability to maintain control and his lack of insight into how this wasn’t the reaction of those around him. Ron’s past coaches and teammates remark on his journey and who he is as a person noting that he was compassionate, loyal and kind – yet that there was a “darkness” to Ron that he could not control. Ron refused to allow the Palace incident to define his career; he went on to win the NBA championship alongside Kobe Bryant, a significant mentor in Ron’s adult career.
Ron Artest had previously disclosed his mental health needs and challenges openly, being the first NBA player to speak candidly about this stereotypically taboo topic. Following the 2010 NBA Championship game, Ron’s speech revolved around his psychiatrist. He had just scored the winning basket and cinched the championship for his team, while on top of the world Ron stated his primary gratitude was to his psychiatrist: “She really helped me relax a lot, she’s helped me so much […] thank you so much”. Media acknowledging how Ron has worked so hard personally and professionally to achieve where he was today reporting that he made the most of his second chance.
“I don’t think when you think of mental health you should be afraid it doesn’t mean you’re crazy it just means that you have some issues in your life and you’re a young teenager or young kid that doesn’t know how to handle it”– Ron Artest
Following this, Ron was presented with his championship ring which was a physical token to his success. Many players cherish these rings as prized possessions and notions of their accomplishments. Ron however realized that this ring was worth so much more. He auctioned the ring with the hopes of raising funds for mental health treatment. Ron becomes starry-eyed as he speaks that P.Diddy wanted to buy his ring for over $200,000 however he declined the offer knowing he needed more. Ron begins to discuss his family history with mental health and the prominence of need in his community – he also acknowledges the expense that comes along with mental health treatment. Ron auctioned his ring for $670,000 to a man who’s mother had experienced mental health challenges; to Ron this was full circle. Ron had identified the need in low-income or inner city communities for mental health services among children, adolescents and teens and he wanted to be a support in bridging this gap in care. Ron acknowledged how his mental health treatment was critical to his success and how as a child not being able to afford care shouldn’t impede your success in development. Ron began the Artest Foundation to provide resources and programming to underprivileged youth with a focus on mental health awareness and treatment.
Ron created a ripple effect in the NBA, publicly acknowledging his mental health diagnosis and need for treatment and subsequently extending gratitude to providers for their role in his success. He is a man who refused to accept his needs and risked losing everything however he persevered and did not allow one piece of what makes him Ron define his future. He came back from his challenges, he continued to succeed. This is normalization, this is the goal. Ron’s impact let to a societal discussion and ongoing change. This is important. As we close out suicide prevention month it is important to acknowledge the critical piece that dialogue plays. Simply having conversation about mental health, disparities in access to care, or resources we can share could change how someone progresses in their illness. How noticing those around us and intervening can change our trajectory, can save our lives in one way or another. Using our platforms, our influence, our words takes the power away from stigma, providing a hope that once wasn’t there.
“Everyone is going through something we can’t see”
To steal the words of Kevin Love: “So if you’re reading this and you’re having a hard time, no matter how big or small it seems to you, I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through. Just the opposite. It could be the most important thing you do. It was for me.” Reach out to those around you, look inward at yourself; know that seeking support is a sign of strength. Read the stories of the men above and understand our role in supporting one another. There’s still so far to go, but we can get there together.