Before their game on January 14, the Northwestern women's basketball team wore special warm-up uniforms to pay tribute to their late teammate, Jordan Hankins. According to the AP, the Wildcats huddled at center court after beating Indiana, 80-67, as hundreds of other Northwestern athletes stood with them in the gym. Hankins, a 19-year-old sophomore, had died by suicide less than a week earlier. News about her death was greeted with shock and sadness by many in the basketball community.
"It broke my heart when I read about it," said retired WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw. Though she didn't know Hankins personally, Holdsclaw understands the sort of overwhelming pressures that go hand-in-hand with playing Division I basketball—especially when it comes to mental health. Like many young adults in college, she struggled with depression, and like many she kept it mostly to herself. "When I was reading the story, I thought about [Hankins] as more than an athlete but also as a student, and what her family life was like, and how the people around her say they saw no signs. I used to be like a professional master at hiding it. I wanted everyone—my grandmother, my friends, and my coaches—to think that everything was OK, even when it wasn't."
During her college years at the University at Tennessee, Holdsclaw seemed to have the basketball world in the palm of her hand. Coached by the late great Pat Summitt, she helped lead the Vols to three straight championships, and was a two-time Women's College Basketball Player of the Year in 1998 and 1999. "I had a certain chip on my shoulder. I was this star college athlete that was going to go pro. That's what I wanted to portray, even though I had all this other stuff going on."
By that time, Summitt had built up one of the most powerful and influential programs in the country at Tennessee. Her teams were winning games in impressive fashion. They were on ESPN and in the news on heavy rotation. Holdsclaw herself had become something of a celebrity, which at the college level was pretty remarkable back then. Yet she couldn't take part in any of the glory. Something inside her wouldn't allow that.
"I remember I went to see Coach Summitt," Holdsclaw said. "And I told her, I don't feel right. All these great things are happening to me, but I don't feel balanced."
Summitt was always a players' coach. She was intent on developing relationships with each and every player on her team, from the breakout stars to the bench players. It's one of the many things that set her apart in college basketball. And that firm foundation of trust gave Holdsclaw the nudge she needed to be honest with her coach about the deep, dark abyss of sadness she had fallen into and couldn't get out of. "I trusted her, and that's a big part of it," she says. "I felt safe."
Years later, Holdsclaw knows how lucky she was to have that support system.
"I know in talking with so many different people that my college experience was not realistic," she said. "Most coaches are not like Pat. She wasn't going to leave Tennessee. You have a lot of coaches these days who are looking for the next opportunity and are focused on wins. Not that Pat wasn't, but she had such control of the program that she could see something and say, 'Look, this kid needs to get some help.' She was successful enough that she could step back and see the whole picture. But imagine if you're a young coach facing the pressures of keeping a job and trying to establish a winning program, you can't keep a close eye on every kid.
"And college athletes are in a tough spot. They think, If I go talk to someone about my emotions, who's going to find out? Is my coach going to find out? Will my teammates find out? Will it affect my future plans and contracts?"
Even today, amid increased awareness surrounding mental health issues on college campuses, Holdsclaw's experience with Summitt stands out. A NCAA study released last January found that only 55 percent of Division I women's basketball players believe their coach cares about their mental well-being. At the same time, the association notes, more student-athletes across all three divisions reported feeling "intractably overwhelmed" than in previous surveys—a trend that mirrors the increase in mental health problems reported on college campuses more generally. And while other studies suggest that student-athletes have a significantly lower suicide rate than the general population, the few high-profile cases that do happen—such as Hankins, or University of Pennsylvania runner Madison Holleran—draw renewed scrutiny on the pressure athletes face, and whether they're getting the support they need.
In 2013, the NCAA convened its first-ever Mental Health Task Force to discuss the issues facing student-athletes and athletic departments, and to come up with solutions. Last year, the association published Mental Health Best Practices, a handbook and resource guide that was approved by over 20 mental health, sports medicine, and higher education organizations."The goal of the handbook is to provide guidance for athletics administrators and campus partners to support and promote the mental health of college athletes," Mary Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, explained via e-mail.
While the NCAA doesn't have statistical data on funding and resources available for mental health programs at the college level in general, Wilfert said that there is evidence that more and more athletic departments are funding positions for licensed mental health professionals to support student athletes. As for what coaches can do to support their players, Wilfert said that creating a team environment that talks openly and destigmatizes mental health concerns is crucial.
"The NCAA has recently produced an introductory video on student-athlete mental wellness, and an educational module specifically for coaches called 'Coach Assist,'" she said. "[It's] a project that trains coaches in empathic response, and has been delivered in person to coaches at several NCAA institutions. It's currently being assessed for a broader dissemination."
Holdsclaw also believes college coaches need to be more active in their players' lives.
"[Coaches] need to get to know the family, talk to their high school coaches, find out how individual players deal with pressure, inquire how are classes going, establish a line of trust, and be readily available," she said. "Coach Summitt was in it all the way. Her focus was to help her players succeed at what they did best. She was ride or die."
It was Summitt who helped Holdsclaw find a reputable therapist while at Tennessee, and that initial treatment ultimately sustained her through college and her first few years in WNBA. But the depression deepened and it eventually caught up with her. In 2007, Holdsclaw abruptly retired from the Los Angeles Sparks and stepped away from the spotlight. At the time, she says, she wasn't ready to talk openly about her mental illness; she told reporters she was just physically tired and needed a break. In 2008, she did return to the hardwood for a stint with the Atlanta Dream and then signed with the San Antonio Stars for one last go in 2010. Both comebacks were short-lived.
Everything came to a head in 2012, when Holdsclaw was arrested after smashing the windows and firing a handgun at her ex-girlfriend's car. Just months earlier, she had publicly detailed her struggle with depression in an autobiography title Breaking Through—a fact that was mentioned repeatedly in the ensuing media coverage. She pleaded guilty to assault in 2013, and was sentenced to three years' probation, a fine, and community service. Holdsclaw admits that it was a tough experience, but she says that it needed to happen—it forced her to reevaluate her treatment. After meeting with a team of medical professionals, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed different medication.
Fast forward to 2017, and Holdsclaw is in a much better space. She travels extensively, speaking openly about her bipolar disorder and the importance of mental health at colleges and youth basketball camps around the country. And she can't help but wonder where she'd be today if she hadn't had Summitt as her coach. In her mind, early intervention made all the difference.
"[Mental health] is like anything: if you address it right away, you can get a jump on it," she said. "That's why it's so important for me to talk to the younger generation and get the message out that it's okay to talk about your emotions and take care of your emotional health and wellness. We don't want them to get in the habit of stuffing all of that in because eventually, over time, it explodes."
Mental health, Holdsclaw insists, needs to be talked about more in schools, as part of the physical education component so kids will know the signs if they are struggling with their emotions and have the support they need can talk to someone about it. It's also important to remember, she said, that it's a lifelong process.
"I'm not fixed," she said. "I still have my good and bad days, just like everyone else. But I'm honest about it. That's the difference. And talking about it gets me out of bed on my bad days."
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