A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter came to me and my wife and told us that she heard her own voice in her head. This 5-year-old found it strange that she had inner thoughts and recognized for the first time that each of us has an “inner personality”. We all go on that mental journey.
I had a serious journey of losing the mental battle during the NBA season in the pandemic bubble in Orlando. My whole life I’ve faced mental challenges and I’ve always felt like I won that battle, but here I was in the bubble and I was losing.
I didn’t know where to go, what to do or how to cope. It was an experience I had never had. It was coupled with disconnecting from the world, isolating myself and not being able to sleep, along with reading social media posts and seeing hateful comments that started to affect me.
I had to put my hand up and surrender
I felt like I was in a gaming simulator where every day was the same and I was just going through the motions. The stress of it took a huge toll on me.
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Then I had to raise my hand and pass the flag and say hey, I need help. That was the first step to improvement – acknowledging that something was happening. And through my team, I was able to talk to a professional therapist, someone to help me overcome the stresses I was feeling.
People think that athletes are superheroes, that we are superior and above the world. There is an expectation that we will make heroic plays from time to time. The game is built on percentages – you make some and miss some. But when you miss a shot, millions of fans can go online to clown 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. The sigma among athletes and more broadly in black culture is that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
Even if you overcome that, there is a lack of understanding and awareness about how to get help, who to talk to and who you can trust to open up 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 too long ago. He retired at the top of his profession at a young age, largely due to the stress of preparing for fights. It 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 talk about their personal battles with mental health were Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan. He surprised me with Demar, who I played basketball with in high school and who is a good friend of mine.
Hearing his struggles made me realize that you should never assume you know what people are going through or what problems people have, and that it’s okay to be open when you need help—that the worst thing to do is ignore or suppress one’s mental health.
Everyone has stress from everyday things. For athletes, there is an expectation to perform at a very high level and entertain in front of millions of fans, and usually until they are 100% healthy. That stress can get to you and sometimes it can break you in clutch moments. But that’s where you have to get that mental toughness and learn that mental toughness.
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Asking for help makes you mentally stronger
Many people think that you are not mentally challenged if you ask for help, but it is quite the opposite. You can be a great athlete and mentally tough competitor, but knowing that something is going on with your mental health and being able to seek help only makes you stronger.
When you face your mental challenges, it puts you in a space where you see that everyone has something going on, things they have to deal with or face. No one is bigger than the problems that happen in their life and it can affect anyone, regardless of your status, religion or race.
When I went through my mental battle, and especially when it came to social media with hate from people I’ve never met, it made me appreciate the relationships I have with my family, the people I’m closest to and who know my character. It’s the people that matter, not the outside noise.
In my case, by working with a professional, I was able to meditate, calm my mind, do activities I enjoy, be with people I enjoy, tune out the negativity and get back on track.
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Ensuring access to affordable care
Raising awareness, destigmatizing and providing access to professional care are essential to addressing the mental health crisis facing so many across our communities. People are afraid to come out and admit their challenges and ask for help. So I think we have to start there – getting people comfortable with that. And then it’s all about providing access to affordable care.
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I didn’t feel like I had a mental health problem until I did. When people hit that moment, if they have a point of reference of someone else who was open about their own struggles and who sought help and got better, that’s really powerful. And that helped me feel comfortable going to someone and asking for 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, that’s why I’m speaking now. That’s why my Paul George Foundation recently partnered with leading mental health care company BetterHelp to create awareness and give away up to $3 million in one month of free therapy to anyone in need who signs up.
The benefits of looking after 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 can come from more awareness, less stigma and more accessible access to mental health care – less violence, more understanding, more love and empathy.
We’re all human, and we’re all in this together. When it comes to mental health, understanding that none of us are superheroes is a great place to start.
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