The problem with mental pain, writer C.S. Lewis said, is that it is less dramatic than physical pain. Though it is more common and harder to bear, “The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.'”
He wasn’t wrong.
Today, especially in the realm of sports, mental illness is shrouded with so much stigma that it becomes almost impossible for those who struggle with it to seek help. Instead, they hide their pain until it completely breaks them.
For Black male athletes, this stigma is even more pronounced.
In the Black community, mental health is seen as a “White people thing.” We aren’t comfortable with the idea of pain that originates in the mind; pain that sometimes has no real cause. In our culture, you just have to “suck it up” because there’s no time to be sad when there are real problems out there … when folks are getting shot for no reason and bills need to be paid and children fed.
Ironically, in a 2001 study by the U.S. surgeon general, physicians found that historic social and economic inequality, racism, discrimination, violence and poverty actually make African-Americans more susceptible to mental health issues.
In fact, psychologists have even found a link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This doesn’t have to be overt racism—we’re not talking about lynchings or blatant acts of discrimination here. Sometimes just being the only Black person in a predominantly White space can be emotionally and mentally draining.
“It’s a miracle any African-American player turns out OK based on where we come from,” NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley has said.
Last season, the NBA was composed of 74.2 percent African-Americans and 80.7 percent people of color. There is a notion that once a Black athlete makes it as a professional, his problems go away; that the poverty, violence and systematic racism he rose out of all just disappear from his world.
Conflict theorist Harry Edwards finds problems with this ideology. In his work, Edwards suggests that any analysis of the heightened value placed on sports involvement by young African-American men is “defective unless it takes account of factors such as: ‘race’ as a restraint upon life-chances; blacks’ unequal access to economic and cultural resources and power; and the marginal position of the group in the labour market, education and other social contexts.”
Basically, what Edwards is saying is, contrary to popular belief, a career in sports doesn’t free Black athletes from the pains and tribulations of the outside world.
DeMar DeRozan, a shooting guard for the San Antonio Spurs who recently revealed his own battle with depression, knows this all too well.
“You think when you come from a difficult environment that if you get out and you make it to the NBA, all that bad stuff is supposed to be wiped clean,” DeRozan told ESPN. “But then this whole new dynamic loaded with stress comes your way. People say, ‘What are you depressed about? You can buy anything you want.’ I wish everyone in the world was rich so they would realize money isn’t everything.”
The idea that wealth and success eradicate depression and other mental illnesses in athletes is incredibly dangerous. All it does is silence those who are struggling with their mental health; it establishes a narrative that says you’re weak if you can’t control your emotions—a narrative that dictates you’re too rich to be anything but grateful, so shut up.
In an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, twin NBA players Marcus and Markieff Morris detailed their bouts with depression when they entered the league.
Marcus admitted their depression stemmed “from demons of a fractured childhood that began with two strikes against them: poor and black.”
“We grew up where there were no White people,” Marcus said. “None. You just didn’t see that in our neighborhood. At that time, I didn’t trust any White people because I didn’t know any White people. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I could trust anybody—not even the people in my neighborhood who I knew my whole life. We just walked out stressed all the time. I said to my brother once, ‘You know, this is no way to live.'”
According to clinical therapist Elise Banks, “Historically, minorities are least likely to get help for mental or emotional reasons, and within that, African-American men. It’s even less common for them to reach out.”
William Parham, M.D., the NBA’s first director of mental health, says this is emphasized by the fact that elite athletes, particularly men, are taught in society to “keep it tight, pack it in, don’t share emotions.”
“When you add a layer of celebrity,” explains Parham, “you have a double whammy. If an elite player starts talking about ‘stuff,’ he feels in danger of being traded or not being re-signed or losing endorsements. So the conclusion becomes, ‘Better to stay quiet.’”
What these players and a lot of us don’t realize, however, is that it takes more courage to speak out than it does to stay quiet.
Although the NBA has been at the forefront in addressing mental health, confidentiality remains a major concern for players who are dealing with mental health issues. After the National Basketball Players Association appointed Parham as its first director of mental health and wellness last spring, some league owners began to privately lobby for mental health history to be included in players’ medical records.
Their reasoning? These players are their “investments;” they are paying them hundreds of millions of dollars; therefore, they deserve access to all their medical files.
“There is, of course, a cold-blooded argument to be made for prospective employers being aware of conditions like depression or anxiety,” says journalist Nathaniel Friedman.
“They can potentially have as much of a long-term impact on performance as a bad back or bum knee. When teams are committing tens of millions of dollars to players’ services, they want to know what they’re paying for. They want to know that they aren’t getting damaged goods.”
That view, while reasonable in this profit-driven society, is fundamentally callous and inhumane. Ultimately, it forces players to choose between seeking treatment or keeping their jobs.
“Even a check-in with a therapist could be a red flag to possible employers,” Friedman explains. “And while this might not have a huge effect on the way a proven, valuable commodity like a DeRozan or a Love is viewed, a more marginal or younger player could easily find [himself] out of a job.”
At the end of the day, we’re all going through something. Pain doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t pick and choose. As Parham says, mental illness is not a basketball thing—and it’s definitely not a “White people thing,” either. Health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD can affect anyone. They’re human problems and until we realize this, the stigma surrounding mental illness will prevail, causing those affected by it to suffer alone and in silence.