By Danny Priest
A topic that carries so much weight and importance, yet to talk about it in public is something people often shy away from doing.
At times, opening up about mental health gets looked down on, as though it cannot be an actual illness that plagues individuals through every day, minute, and sometimes every second of their lives.
Mental health should be taken every bit as seriously as physical health, but right now, in the year 2019, it’s not.
Mental well-being is real for everybody. It matters, but as a society, the point has not been reached where it’s a topic that can be comfortably talked about in all settings.
The fact is simply ignored that people can go for days, weeks, months, years, or even lifetimes being crushed and suffocated by something plaguing them mentally, but they are too afraid to reach out and get help.
On Tuesday night at Fuller Arts Center, Springfield College and Professor of Humanics Judy Van Raalte made their best effort to start a dialogue on the importance of mental health and not being afraid to lend a hand or ask for help yourself.
William Parham, Professor of Counseling at Loyola Marymount University and the inaugural Director of the Mental Health and Wellness Program for the NBA Player’s Association, came to campus to speak as part of this year’s Humanics Triathlon.
The Humanics Triathlon is a new initiative on campus that was put into place by Van Raalte.
The idea is that Humanics on campus is broken up into spirit, mind, and body. Students can show their spirit by downloading the “SuperFan-Loyalty Rewards” app and checking into various events they attend around campus.
The other two components, mind and body, are broken up seperately. Mind is being achieved through a series of guest speakers on campus, of which Parham was the first. The body portion of Humanics is a challenge to those on campus to create their own initiatives of Humanics and act on it any way they choose. No matter how big or small the project is.
Parham was the “kickoff” speaker for the triathlon and as an expert in his field, he’s seen the ins and outs of the world of mental health, particularly through the lens of sports.
Van Raalte credited Dr. Seth Arsenian, a former Springfield College Professor of Humanics, for inspiring her to bring Parham to campus.
“In 1969 Dr. Arsenian wrote the book Humanics and Higher Education, A Psychological Interpretation. He turned attention and awareness to the importance of spirit, mind, and body from a psychological perspective.”
Dr. Parham began his presentation by making it clear that athletes are facing the same issues as everyday individuals, and that mental health is still mental health.
“Mental health and wellness challenges in professional athletics is really a human challenge, that is played out in the context of professional sports,” he said.
“That’s so important, because so many people think that there’s athlete mental health and when you start breaking that down that there’s something different in the athletic community that separates their mental health and wellness from non-athletes. I want you to consider that’s simply not accurate,” he challenged the crowd.
Parham made the case that athletes are not viewed like regular people because of the lifestyles they live.
“Professional athletes have a moniker that they’re spoiled, they’re rich and what problems could they possibly have? The average public doesn’t have a clue to what’s really going,” he said. “We focus so much on the performer and not the person. One of my takeaway messages tonight is that it’s important to focus on the person before the performer.”
Parham went on to display slides in his powerpoint of various athletes who have been affected by mental health struggles. Some of the names included: Junior Seau (former NFL player who died by suicide at 43), Paul Oliver (former NFL player who died by suicide at 29), John Madden (NFL broadcaster; bouts with depression and anxiety), Michael Phelps (Olympic swimmer; bouts with depression).
The list included many more recognizable names, the types of names that people see as invincible, because they are used to watching these stars perform on big stages.
One even more personal story Parham shared was that of 13-year NBA veteran and current colleague with the Players Association, Keyon Dooling.
Parham detailed how after signing a contract with the Boston Celtics, Dooling was groped by an inebriated fan in a bathroom and the incident sparked suppressed memories of Dooling’s childhood.
Dooling wound up walking away from everything — the game he loved, millions of dollars — all because his head was not in the right place. He checked into a rehab hospital immediately.
“He subsequently was discharged, went on a journey of healing and therapy, and what surfaced was that he was sexually molested at the age of 6, saw his first death by gang shooting at age 10. He never told anybody, but carried that around,” Parham said.
Perhaps more chilling than the story of Dooling himself was Parham’s next statement:
“His story is not unique.”
Traumatizing events are everywhere. They happen daily and they have very real effects on the individuals who are forced to live through them.
The toll that events such as rape, violence, and abuse (physical or mental), among many other things, can do to a person’s psyche is unthinkable, especially in the instance of a person such as Dooling who was very young when those things happened.
During his presentation, Parham referenced the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted in 1996-1998 by the Center for Disease Control. He applied the data from the study to those in attendance.
“If each of you were to take out your phones right now, go to your phone directory, and with your eyes closed randomly pull up 100 people, these data are pointing out that 65 percent of those people would’ve had one to four adverse childhood experiences, not uncommonly having the first one before the age of 10 years or younger.”
Parham was able to prove that these things happen everywhere, but perhaps a bigger issue was how reluctant people are to speak up.
Part of that, he claimed, was due to the stigma held in society today.
“Were women to walk around putting their fist in the walls and cursing like a sailor, and calling y’all sort of mf’s — the first thing out of your mouth, including women, is that b—h is crazy. Totally discounting what she may be authentically feeling,” Parham said.
“Likewise for a strong man to come in with anger issues but for him to be crying, looking sad, looking pouty — he’s a wimp, and a sissy, and a punk. He knows that and so does she, so they have to find a socially acceptable way of talking about their journey.”
The only way to combat the issue of mental health is to accept that it’s okay to speak up and lean on others.
Parham referred to life’s traumatic events as “tattoos” and that no matter how hard individuals may try to forget them, they never go away.
Similarly, he referred to warning signs as “smoke detectors.” Warning signs consist of acting out, causing trouble, or as the case is often seen with professional athletes and celebrities: getting in trouble with the law.
“Always understand that behavior you are looking at and witnessing is problematic. Problematic meaning if it continues, there’s going to be some consequences,” Parham said of the “smoke detector” signs.
“But I invite you to consider that while the behavior may be problematic, problematic behavior is…never a problem. The problem is always something else.”
Parham’s final message was that adverse situations are everywhere. Trauma is everywhere and it happens to everyone.
Take a look at yourself, but keep an eye on what’s going on with those around you.
“It’s important ultimately to listen to yourself. Listen to the players and the athletes that you are working with. Listening is a very important skill…the best way to listen is actually hidden in the six letters,” Parham said.
“If you unscramble the six letters, what you come up with is the word ‘silent.’ So the best way to listen to yourself and to listen to others is to really engage in self-reflection. Be still and honest about what’s going on in your life, what’s going on in the life of others, and never be a hater and judging other people’s experiences.”
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Marketing & Communications