A couple of weeks ago, my youngest daughter came up to my wife and me and told us that she was hearing her own voice in her head. It was amazing for this 5-year-old to have inner thoughts, and it was the first time she recognized that each of us has an “inner person.” We all go on that mental journey.
I had my serious journey of losing the mental battle during the NBA season in the pandemic bubble in Orlando. All my life I had been faced with mental challenges and had always felt that I had won that battle, but here I was, in the bubble, losing.
I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or how to cope. It was an experience she had never had. It was related to being cut off from the world, isolated and not being able to sleep, along with reading social media posts and seeing hate comments that started to get to me.
I had to raise my hand and give up
I felt like I was in a game simulator where every day was the same and I was going through the motions. The stress of that affected me tremendously.
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That’s when I had to raise my hand and hand over the flag and say hey I need help. That was the first step to getting better: admitting that something was up. And through my team, I was able to talk to a professional therapist, someone who helped me get through the stressors I was feeling.
People think that athletes are superheroes, that we are superior and above the world. There’s an expectation that we’re going to make heroic plays over and over again. The game is based on percentages: you make some and lose some. But when you miss a shot, millions of fans can go online to clown around and laugh about it.
So there’s pressure and stress in being an athlete, and there’s also a stigma when it comes to athletes and their mental health, even more so in the black community. That sigma among athletes and more broadly in black culture is that seeking help is a sign of weakness.
Even if it goes beyond that, there is a lack of understanding and awareness about how to get help, who to talk to, and who you can trust to talk about mental challenges.
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Unique elements of stress for athletes
I was listening to one of the greatest mixed martial artists, George St. Pierre, speak not long ago. He retired at the top of his profession at an early age, and his the reason was largely stress that the preparation for the fights provoked. He reminded me that unless you’re an elite athlete, you probably don’t realize the unique elements of stress that athletes go through.
The first NBA players I heard about their personal battles with mental health were Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan. It caught me off guard with DeMar, who I played basketball with in high school and who is a good friend of mine.
Listening to their struggles made me realize that you should never assume you know what people are going through or what struggles people may be having, and that it’s okay to be open when you need help, that the worst thing you can do is ignore or suppress the one’s mental health.
Everyone has the stress of day to day things. For athletes, there is an expectation to perform at a very high level and entertain in front of millions of fans, and usually without being 100% healthy. That stress can get to you and it can break you sometimes in the tough times. But that’s where you have to get that mental toughness and learn that mental toughness.
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Seeking help makes you mentally stronger
Many people think that you are not mentally strong if you seek help, but the opposite is true. You can be a great athlete and mentally tough competitively, but if you know something is going on with your mental health and you can seek help, it only makes you stronger.
When you face your mental challenges, it puts you in a space where you see that everyone has something to do, things to deal with or deal with. No one is bigger than the problems that happen in your life and they can affect anyone, regardless of status, religion, or race.
When I went through my mental battle, and especially when it came to hate-filled social media from people I’ve never met, it made me appreciate the relationships I have with my family, the people closest to me and who know my character. Those are the people that matter and not the outside noise.
In my case, working with a professional I have been able to meditate, calm my mind, do activities that I enjoy, be with people that I enjoy, isolate myself from the negative and get back on my level.
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Provide access to affordable care
Raising awareness, destigmatizing, and providing access to professional care are essential to solving the mental health crisis facing so many in our communities. People are afraid to come out and admit their challenges and seek help. So I think we have to start there, get people comfortable with that. And then it’s about providing access to affordable care.
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I didn’t feel like I had a problem with mental health, until the moment I did. When people get to that point, if they have a reference point of another person who has been open about their own struggles and has sought help and gotten better, it’s really powerful. And it helped me feel comfortable going to someone and seeking help.
The more we can talk openly about mental health, the better off we’ll all be.
I want to be part of the solution, which is why I’m speaking up now. That’s why my Paul George Foundation recently partnered with leading mental health care company BetterHelp to raise awareness and give away up to $3 million in the form of one month of free therapy for anyone in need who signs up.
The benefits of taking care of our mental health and talking to a professional therapist are of course personal but also for all of us as a society. Who knows what may come from increased awareness, less stigma, and more affordable access to mental health care: less violence, more understanding, more love and empathy.
We are all human, and we are all in this together. When it comes to mental health, understanding that none of us are superheroes is a good starting point.
Paul George is a seven-time NBA All-Star and plays for the Los Angeles Clippers.
To sign up for a month of free therapy, go to www.betterhelp.com/Paulgeorge