In 2019, more than 20% of American adults reported that they faced mental health challenges, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. As the country still grapples with the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, more athletes are publicly addressing their personal battles with mental health to bring awareness to those who may also be struggling.
“CBS Mornings” co-host Nate Burleson spoke with three current and former pro-athletes who have been vocal about the importance of mental health and vulnerability — NBA star Kevin Love, who is outspoken about his anxiety and depression, former NFL star Brandon Marshall, who in 2011 shared his diagnosis for borderline personality disorder, and WNBA rookie DiDi Richards, who was temporarily paralyzed during a college practice in 2020.
I had to have a major moment in my life, a very public, emotional, and mental health moment, which was a panic attack on the floor. I thought I was having a cardiac moment honestly. I mean, the oxygen just wasn’t going to my brain, my lungs. Nothing was alleviating the panic that I was feeling. So, I actually ended up on oxygen. After that, I went to the Cleveland Clinic. All the tests checked out.
So to me, I’m thinking, “Well, what the hell just happened?” I was taught to compartmentalize. I was taught to, you know, not speak about it, not show weakness. I think as athletes, we can all confide in that, and understand that in a way. You know, it’s funny, because every few years, I kind of see myself. I look in the mirror, and I wasn’t passing the mirror test. Now, I’m doing a little bit better, more comfortable in my own skin. I can say, “Hey, listen, if I’m feeling triggers, if I’m feeling something, I know my tools and what I can go to.”
In 2020, Richards was a senior at Baylor University when she collided with a teammate during practice, suffering a spinal cord injury that left her temporarily paralyzed. Thankfully, the injury did not cause structural damage and she recovered after 38 days. Earlier this year, Richards was drafted by the New York Liberty as the 17th overall pick in the WNBA draft.
In the blink of an eye, something you love and that you do every day was the reason why you’re sitting in this hospital. So, it took a toll on me mentally to where as soon as I got hurt, that’s all I could think about was basketball. So, it took some time. When I say “some time,” I am still going through it. You know?
And I’ll sit there and I’m just like, “DiDi, you’re still hurting from this,” or, “DiDi, you never allowed yourself to really cope with what you went through.”
As athletes, they think we’re robots. You get hurt, “Okay, they’re just hurt. They’ll be back.” You know? And I started thinking like that, like, “okay, I got hurt, yes, but I’m coming back,” instead of thinking, “I’m hurt. I need to figure out how I am going to deal with this and how I am feeling deep down inside.”
As a Black female, you’re taught to swallow that s***. You know what I’m saying? You just swallow it and you figure it out on your own and it wasn’t until recently, when I say, “recently,” like a couple months ago, where my college coach was like, “DiDi, you’re not the same. You’re not OK.”
I’m this happy person. I’ve always been this happy person but it was to the point where I took my craft so seriously that I would just forget what you’re thinking in your head, forget the world feeling sorry for you. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s now you have to go and work harder. You missed 38 days being paralyzed. Now it’s time to go back in the gym and train harder.
You go through things and it gets to a point where we’re sitting here and we could be hurting right in front of you. You know? But if you ask us, “What’s wrong?” it’s gonna be, “Nothing. How are you?” It’s just something that you’ve been raised, you’ve been brought up as and especially as an athlete at that it’s so many things adding onto: a female, a Black female, an athlete. It’s like now you’re pushed way down. You’re at the bottom. Now you’re the last person you’re thinking about even if comes to yourself.
I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The best way to describe borderline personality disorder is emotional disorder. Most people who are living with borderline personality disorder, they don’t have the skills and tools naturally to be able cope and manage, self regulate. For me, I had to go through self-assessment to pick up those tools and skills to be able to communicate what I was feeling, I didn’t have that naturally. It was just all about reacting not responding.
As athletes, we get up every single day and what do we do? We try to fight as hard as possible to train our bodies, to jump higher, to run faster, to be stronger. So every day, if we’re going to put that much work into our bodies, physically, what are we doing mentally?
Sports is a microcosm of society. Think about 2020 — the pandemic. For the very first time, we all were dealing with the same thing and having these conversations: anxiety, depression. There were so many people dealing with that for the very first time, had no clue what that was or what they were feeling. They couldn’t. I think that’s the huge takeaway is connect with the trauma.
I had my first panic attack in a pandemic. So December, got COVID-19. I’m sitting in my bedroom. Isolation and I just remember this thing coming over me where I couldn’t breathe and all I could think about is like, “Oh, my goodness. If this continues to happen, then I’m gonna have to go to the hospital and they’ll put me on a ventilator and then what happens if I’m under? Now I can’t control it.
All I could think about is like, “I just want my wife to come in here.” And I was like, “If she can just come in here and let me just hold onto her leg. I just need someone to touch me. I need somebody to be here with me.” But no one could come in that room. I remember just like, “You know what? Lemme use my skills and tools that I learned.” And I was like, “I know it’s gonna be okay. This is not a heart attack. I feel like I’m dying, but I’m not gonna die.” Just understanding what it was, it allowed me to be able to get through that moment.
We have to understand that social anxiety is a real thing. Naomi Osaka, she’s dealing with a real thing. So is the sport bigger than her life? How many more athletes, entertainers, or just people, you know, are going to continue to be isolated because of their truth or what they’re dealing with?
There are people out there that are struggling, struggling in silence. So we have to embrace this. We’re just not used to having those conversations. So when Naomi opens up, she’s bringing more people to the sport, because we’re humanizing her.