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Former Sixers Center Jahlil Okafor Latest Player to Open up on Depression

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More and more NBA players are feeling comfortable discussing the serious issue.

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Philadelphia 76ers Media Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In a recent sit down with The Athletic’s Shams Charania, former Sixers center/power forward Jahlil Okafor revealed that he is suffering from depression, and was last season as well. Okafor explained that:

“I didn’t know I was dealing with depression and anxiety, myself. When I was in Brooklyn after the Philly trade, I started to talk to somebody there. That was the first I heard about it. Then, during the season, I didn’t act on it.”

Okafor is the latest NBA player to publicly admit a battle with depression and/or anxiety. Back in March, Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kevin Love penned a piece for The Players’ Tribune talking about his battle with depression. The beginning of the piece outlines how Love suffered a panic attack during a November game against the Atlanta Hawks.

The attack was Love’s first, and it came out of nowhere. Up until that day, he had denied their existence. Love had a notion that mental illness was “someone else’s problem”. He didn’t say that to be ignorant. He just said that because he was right. It was someone else’s problem. He had not experienced it.

Love’s tune has changed since then:

“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.”

Okafor is the newest, but this is a trend of players being more upfront on this issue. Kevin Love, Demar DeRozan in the Toronto Star, and Kelly Oubre in Complex are just the current NBA players.

Before these four, names like Metta World Peace, Delonte West, Larry Sanders, Royce White, and the late Eddie Griffin (whom I went to high school with at Roman Catholic High School) have all opened up about their depression. This issue has reached more openness in other sports as well.

Canadian tennis star Rebecca Marino retired at the age of 22, citing depression. Former WNBA All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw has also spoken out regarding her battle with depression.

I already know what some ignorant people will say:

“These people are multi-millionaires playing sports. What do they have to be depressed about.”

Statements like that miss the point, as they are wildly dismissive and can sometimes make a person feel even worse. Other comments like “just be happy” or “smile” don’t help, either. Personally, I know many regular everyday people who suffer from clinical depression. Some of those people -- whose anonymity I will preserve -- describe it as such:

  • “It’s literally being outside of yourself and watching you do things you shouldn’t.”
  • “Just not wanting to do anything of any sorts despite the fact that you KNOW you need to do something.”
  • “Feels like your brain has been hijacked.”
  • “There are very few days I don’t think about dying. Some days it scares me to think that way, and other days, I’m like, whatever. Do I want to die?”

These are actual quotes from people who aren’t athletes. These are from 9-to-5 folks. Take those feelings and then magnify them with the fact that you are an athlete who deals with many ups and downs/ebbs and flows during a calendar year.

The point isn’t that one brand of depression (non-athletes) is greater than the other (athletes). The point is that depression is not racist, ageist, classist, or anything else.

So, the next question is this: What does the NBA currently do about this?

This year, the NBA Players Association appointed Dr. William D. Parham as its first Director of Mental Health and Wellness. Dr. Parham will have a significant role for players who need his help, but Parham will not play any kind of deciding role regarding whether or not a player should play.

Before 2000, no NBA team had an in-house psychologist. The Dallas Mavericks were the first. Many teams employ psychologists, now.

The NBA as a collective has identified this need and branched out to make sure their policies and practices on mental health extend to the WNBA and the G League. Late in 2017, the NBA hired the Jed Foundation to serve as an adviser on mental health awareness.

Like most things about a touchy subject, a culture change is needed in the area of mental health. Former NBA player Keyon Dooling, who began serving as a Player Wellness Counselor in January, described some harsh and old school thinking on how things used to be in a piece for NBA.com’s David Aldridge:

“We’re told, don’t talk about it. Shut up. Suck it up. You’re a man. And we develop this condition of not being able to express our emotions.”

That’s not just what you’re told by your bosses -- at least I hope not. Dooling echoes a societal norm about men. Men are conditioned at a young age not to show weakness. “Suck it up” is a phrase that many are all too familiar with hearing.

This needs to stop and has needed to be stopped for a LONG time. Not just men, but women, children, pets. No organism on earth should be shamed for having feelings and emotions. That leads to the next part that will push depression awareness in the NBA (and in general) to a very positive position.

It should be noted that depression is not just an emotional struggle. In many ways, it is chemical, as well. According to a 2009 post in Harvard Health Publishing of the Harvard Medical School, there is a chemical component in relation to depression. Even that part, however, has its own array of moving parts:

“To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.”

Chemical imbalance, emotions, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems are all factors when discussing what causes depression.

This is a very complex issue that millions of Americans cope with every minute of every day. In terms of sheer numbers:

  • An estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode.
  • In 2016, an estimated 10.3 million U.S. adults (4.3%) aged 18 or older had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 (12.8%!) in the United States had at least one major depressive episode.
  • An estimated 44% received combined care by a health professional and medication treatment, and about 37% of adults with major depressive episode did not receive treatment.

Those statistics come from the National Institute of Mental Health.

What comes next is transparency and the willingness to come forward with what you’re going through -- naturally and without pressure, obviously. The outdated philosophy of “just suck it up” should be scrapped.

Anyone battling depression should be given the support they need from family, friends, co-workers (including bosses or team owners). If depression could lead to suicidal thoughts, make sure that person has the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

For anyone looking to be proactive in support, there are many organizations that you can donate to, including the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Every little bit helps because as Kevin Love said in his Players’ Tribune piece:

“This is an everyone thing.”