Toronto Raptor, All-Star player DeMar DeRozan did himself and all of us who also suffer from depression a big favour when he reached on Twitter one night in mid-February about what he was going through.
“This depression get the best of me.” was DeRozan’s brief tweet, late on the night of Feb. 17 during the All-Star break in the regular NBA schedule.
Those few words have had a huge, positive impact especially for the many people in this world who have suffered, and still suffer, from mental illness in lonely silence, afraid and ashamed to reach out for help because of a continuing social stigma that labels that as weakness.
It’s not. It’s a sign of strength. It takes a lot of courage to begin the long, hard process of healing by talking about your mental illness openly and honestly as DeRozan has. By doing so has inspired a renewed societal discussion of the need to remove the still deeply ingrained stigma surrounding mental illness.
The sooner it’s gone, encouraging people experiencing the first signs of mental illness to reach out for help, the better.
Almost immediately, in the hours and days after he tweeted his struggle with depression out into the twitter universe of potentially millions of fans and readers, DeRozan started receiving a flood of replies from people offering him words of comfort and shared understanding. Many expressed appreciation for his “courage” in speaking so openly about his struggle, because it was their struggle too.
“Thank you for sharing. You will help many people by speaking out,” was a typical reply.
I have happened to tune in to the end of a Raptors’ game and caught a bit of DeRozan’s almost painfully shy awkwardness in post-game interviews. He tends not to make eye contact with the sports media interviewer and leaves the impression he’d rather be doing anything else. He can’t get away fast enough. But he’s the Toronto team’s top star, so he accepts that it’s part of his responsibility to the team. A trained observer would have seen signs of a deep-seated, mental-health issue manifesting itself.
It’s a measure of the pain he must have had to deal with for a long time — perhaps even more with the pressure of being an All-Star — that the pain that night was so unbearable that he felt the need to put it out there into the social-media universe to the extent that he did. Speaking as one who has been there and done that, it was a personal cry for help that incidentally spoke for many millions of other people suffering the unbearable pain of depression in “the dark night of the soul.”
The usually quiet and reserved DeRozan said much more in a follow-up article by Toronto Star sports reporter Doug Smith. “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” DeRozan said.
Another NBA player, Kevin Love, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, credited DeRozan with inspiring him to write a long, well-received essay published this past week in The Players Tribune, a sports-news outlet featuring contributions from professional athletes. Love’s deeply moving piece about a debilitating panic attack he suffered during an early-season game last November has garnered widespread media attention.
“It came out of nowhere. I’d never had one before,” he wrote in the essay titled, Everyone Is Going Through Something, echoing one of DeRozan’s key points.
“I didn’t even know if they were real,” Love wrote, about the panic attack that brought him down so badly he was unable to re-enter the game. He was taken to hospital that night. He checked out okay, physically.
That was a relief. But as he resumed play he couldn’t shake the question that first occurred to him even as he left the hospital that night, “Wait . . . then what the hell just happened?”
And this question also weighed on him: “Why was I so concerned with people finding out?
“It was a wake-up call, that moment. I’d thought the hardest part was over after I had the panic attack. It was the opposite.
“Call it a stigma, or call it fear or insecurity . . . but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles, but how difficult it was to talk about them. I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up.”
It wasn’t the strong, silent way a “real man” was supposed to be. He knew he had to do something about it.
The team helped him find a therapist. And, Love said, that turned out to be a surprisingly positive experience for him, especially when the therapist helped him talk about buried feelings of grief for a beloved family member.
“I’ve seen the power of saying things out loud in a setting like that,” he wrote, adding “it’s not some magical process. It’s terrifying and awkward and hard, in my experience so far.”
Love said “the biggest lesson for me since November . . . was about confronting the fact I needed help.”
He said DeRozans comments about his depression made him want to write about his own experience.
“I’ve played against DeMar for years, but I never could’ve guessed that he was struggling with anything. It really makes you think about how we are all walking around with experiences and struggles – all kinds of things – and we sometimes think we’re the only ones going through them. The reality is that we probably have a lot in common with what our friends and colleagues and neighbors are dealing with.”
Love said DeRozan helped “more people than we know feel like they aren’t crazy or weird to be struggling with depression. His comments helped take some of the power away from that stigma, and I think that’s where the hope is.”
“It made me feel great. That was my whole intent with speaking out,” DeRozan said in a media scrum after a game this past week when asked how he felt about Love’s essay.
“I understand it’s hard to step up and do a thing like that,” he said in an article published this week in the National Post. “If I had to be the sacrificial lamb to open up that gate and make everybody else feel comfortable and share their story and help the next person, that’s what it’s all about.”
A tip of my well-worn toque to both of them for their strong, courageous actions.
Surely by now it’s self-evident in this troubled world that anxiety and depression, and other forms of mental illness, is a world health crisis. So, what else is new, one might easily argue, looking at human history, right up to recent and current, modern times.
But never have the stakes been so high, if you know what I mean; and I sure hope you do.
The unstable man, with immense power in its hands, currently occupying the office of President of the United States of America, recently talked about rebuilding and/or otherwise re-opening a nation-wide system of mental hospitals.
By the time the mentally ill need to be locked up in mental hospitals for their own safety and for society’s, it’s already too late.
Early treatment and therapeutic intervention for mental illness, like any other, is the key that unlocks a new and better future for what is essentially a tragic and often dangerous waste of human resources, on a personal, societal, and total-world level.
Donald Trump would have accomplished far more if he had spoken and acted with the courage, self-awareness, and empathy of DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love.
Just imagine: a somewhat modified version of “suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be,” coming from the Oval Office.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in March, 2018