(NEW YORK) — Often lost in the bright shine of athletic celebrity stardom are the deep human pains that can weigh on Black athletes in particular.
Only one in three Black Americans with mental health illnesses obtain treatment, according to multiple studies including research from Psychiatric Services published in the National Library of Medicine and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
ABC News’ Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan talked with a group of Black athletes about their experiences and struggles with mental health in the realm of professional competitive sports.
“I’m learning how to live a new life in this new pain– in this journey of grief that’s like a rollercoaster,” said Jets defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who said his mental health struggle began after his sister died by suicide in 2018.
Thomas said he grew up with the mentality that he should tough out emotional adversity.
“After my sister died, I had all these emotions and feelings I had never felt before. Like, deep depression, deep guilt,” said Thomas.
Thomas said it wasn’t until San Francisco 49ers General Manager John Lynch offered him resources for mental health that he decided to go to seek therapy.
Olympian track and field athlete Anna Cockrell said she found herself in a less traditional struggle in her third year of college.
“A lot of the typical depression symptoms that you hear about just didn’t apply to me,” said Cockrell. “I was doing all the things you’re supposed to do and still felt terrible.”
Cockrell said it was her college coach, Caryl Smith Gilbert, who recognized something was wrong and facilitated her starting therapy.
Three-time NBA All-Star Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said his mental health struggles began after his mother among several other family members died from COVID-19.
“In a way, the world was silent,” said Towns. “I got to a point where I had to start realizing I was deteriorating.”
Towns said it was a member of his team’s medical staff whom he ultimately looked to for help.
“I felt very comfortable in having those tough conversations with someone that was familiar to me,” said Towns.
Stigma, price of access, and shame can all act as barriers to mental health treatment and access.
Cockrell said that therapy was helpful in a time of crisis, but she found it most useful to do it consistently, so she was able to diagnose the problem. She also said she had to assuage her parents’ concerns that her mental health struggle was their fault.
“I think at first, my parents, they just didn’t quite understand. Like, I think there was a lot of struggle for them of thinking, “What did we do wrong? Did we make a mistake?” And having to reassure them,” she said.
Strahan said he noticed the entrance of a “new era” of mental health that may be unfamiliar to older generations. According to a 2013 study from the American Psychological Association, only 5% of the psychology workforce was Black and Strahan noted this could be a contributing factor to lagging participation in mental health treatment.
Thomas said his mom was supportive of his therapy, something he was initially reluctant towards. He said therapy helped him answer questions like “What does my brain patterns revert to when I get anxious or when I get sad, and how do I break that?”
Thomas said he now encourages similarly struggling teammates to seek professional help despite pushback.
“When you’re stuck in that cycle, you feel so empty. You feel so alone. You feel like you’re the only one going through it to a point where you even feel like you’re crazy, and– and you’re not. You’re human,” said Thomas.
Towns said he thinks the biggest misconception in the Black community around mental health is the “weakness in showing vulnerability.”
He identified the issue as a generational battle, saying the perseverance of the Black community in its fight for equal rights can make showing weakness difficult.
“We refuse to allow anything to ruin what we built,” he said.
Cockrell said she decided to be vocal about her mental health struggle in order to speak specifically to Black women’s experiences.
“You don’t have to take everything on. Your pain, your experience, your voice, your struggles, your success, they all matter,” is Cockrell’s primary message to Black women.
Strahan concluded by asking the group why it’s important to have these conversations about mental health in the Black community.
“There are so many people out there struggling,” said Thomas.
He said if those people could see they are not alone, “These conversations can save these lives.”
“I look at this conversation as a celebration,” said Strahan. “A celebration of being free enough, confident enough, strong enough, supported enough to share how you truly feel to the world.”
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