After a player’s suicide, thoughts on fighting the black hole of depression

This story starts with a basketball player, but it’s far more important than any game.

Jordan Hankins, a sophomore on Northwestern’s women’s team, killed herself in her dorm room Jan. 9.

By all accounts, her family, friends, teammates and coaches had no idea what she was going through.

I’ve followed the story at about four levels. I obviously am a big women’s basketball and sports fan. I’m a Northwestern alum — I covered men’s basketball as a student in 1970 (before the school had any women’s teams).

But more, I’m a person who has fought depression on and off for 30 years. I’ve worked with students struggling with the disease, including several who were suicidal. (Thankfully we didn’t lose any of them.)

Depression is a black hole. No matter what your life was like before, you see darkness you think will never end.

Part of it is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain. It’s like diabetes and a million other physical illnesses, though some people still see it as somehow a weakness of character.

I also think it comes from an unrealistic gap in expectations — that people get fixated on an ideal that they don’t give themselves a break they don’t reach it. I’ve observed that some of my highest achieving students are ones who struggle emotionally. Hankins was a premed major at one of the best private universities in the country.

Athletes have huge expectations of themselves and, often, the ability to achieve great things. Striving to reach those expectations is one of the things that make them good. But it can also make a person neurotic. Perfection is impossible, not matter how much we demand it of ourselves, and beating up on yourself for not being perfect can drive you toward that black hole.

Richie Mulhall, a student sportswriter I taught last semester, did a package on athletes and mental health in May for the Kent Stater, the campus newspaper. He quoted a study that said 25 percent of athletes will have symptoms of depression sometime while they’re in college.

“People who aren’t student-athletes think we have the perfect life,” one athlete told him. “It’s like you get school paid for, you get all your clothes, you get travel and meals, but they don’t realize how it is and how it actually takes a toll on you.”

“Being an athlete, you’re not really allowed to show your emotions, so you have to learn to keep all your problems inside.”

That woman got help through a fairly new initiative by the Kent State Athletic Department and the Mid-American Conference. She insisted on anonymity for the article, which isn’t surprising. Student journalists here have done a couple of dozen stories related to mental illness in my 30 years of teaching, and not more than three or four students have been willing to be quoted by name. Yet we’ve had athletes miss extended time with mononucleosis who haven’t had any problem with talking about it.

I worked hard to hide my own depression when I was a newspaper editor. But early in my teaching career, an Honors student elsewhere in the university killed himself. I had a counselor talk to an Honors class I taught at the time, and I worked up courage to tell the class I had struggled, too, and gotten help for it.

Since then, I’ve been open about it. I figure that if one student looked at me and said, ‘He doesn’t seem too crazy. If he could get help, maybe I can, too,’ it would be worth more than any paper I ever graded.

So my message from this post is three-fold:

  1. Any of us — athletes and non-athletes of any age — may be struggling. It’s not a personal failure. It’s a disease.
  2. Help is available, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking it.
  3. You never know what other people are going through. Listen if they want to talk. Know the danger signs. If something seems wrong, ask. Urge them to get help.

This from from a speech Friday by England’s Princess Kate, who I never dreamed I would quote on a sports blog: “The challenge so many people have is not knowing how to take that first step of reaching out to another person for help. Admitting that they are not coping. Fear, or reticence, or a sense of not wanting to burden another, means that people suffer in silence – allowing the problem to grow larger and larger unchecked.”

Some resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255. There are a ton of resources on its website. It’s also good for people who aren’t suicidal but still struggling.

Signs and symptoms of depression from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Almost all colleges offer confidential psychological counseling. At Kent State, it’s University Psychological Services. Most communities have mental health hotlines and mental health services, and many agencies charge on an ability-to-pay basis. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a national referral service.

Here’s an ESPN story about Jordan Hankins and Northwestern.

The Kent Stater articles on student-athlete mental health mentioned are:

‘Stop the Stigma,’ athletes learn, told

KSU student-athlete fights depression




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