#TGW: WNBA Legend Delivers Powerful Message
Guest speaker Chamique Holdsclaw shares her story about mental health with Georgia Tech student-athletes
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Given Chamique Holdsclaw's resume, which includes three NCAA titles and three national player of the year awards while she played basketball at Tennessee, it was at first difficult on Monday evening for a couple hundred Georgia Tech student-athletes in McCamish Pavilion to imagine the depths she's experienced.
As she spoke for some 20 minutes about her battles with mental health issues -- the likes of which many suffer but don't address - her story was alarming. She bottomed out nearly five years ago, not far from McCamish.
"I remember sitting in a parked car, in the Annex on the Georgia Tech campus with a 9 mm in the passenger seat, thinking about . . . putting the gun to my head," Holdsclaw said while speaking for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association's Total Person program. "That's when my life was transformed."
After an incident in Atlanta in November 2012, when she smashed the windows of her former girlfriend's car, Holdsclaw was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault, one count of criminal damage in the first degree, two counts of criminal damage in the second degree and one count of possession of a firearm in commission of a felony.
Having been diagnosed with clinical depression some 10 years earlier, Holdsclaw entered intense therapy after the dark night near her Atlanta home, and after more than a year she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
That helped explain her mood swings, her inability at times to focus, and make it easier to understand why she can't always give you details about her college career or even her professional career after the Washington Mystics made her the No. 1 overall pick of the 1999 WNBA draft.
"I don't remember a lot of things," she said. "I don't remember it because I was not healthy; I was dealing with a chemical imbalance."
Holdsclaw has been a mental health advocate for a few years now and she speaks often to college students. Her primary advice Monday was, "You guys have resources here. Take advantage of it."
Counseling is available for Tech students and student-athletes, but various surveys suggest that perhaps as little as 10 percent of college student-athletes who struggle with issues like depression and/or anxiety seek help.
Senior football player KeShun Freeman suggested that part of that may be because they're afraid to ask, fearful that they will be ostracized.
"Out of this huge crowd of hundreds I'm pretty positive that one-third of them suffer from something but they just are afraid to speak up," he said. "One thing about being a student-athlete, people put you on this platform.
"Even though you're not a professional, people idolize you so I think she hit the nail on the head when she talked about how she was so high up and people expected so much from her that she was too afraid to come out and say, `I'm struggling.' "
Holdsclaw went public about her struggles with depression in 2004 when she was playing for the Los Angeles Sparks. At that point, she had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she continued to struggle, and retired in the midst of the 2007 season in Los Angeles.
She has suggested that where her grandmother had compelled her to therapy as a teenager in Queens and former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt likewise directed her to professional help, there was not a similar support system for her while she was a pro basketball player.
After returning to the WNBA, she played for the Atlanta Dream in 2009 and then in San Antonio before retiring for good.
The most important thing for her, she said, "is therapy," and it took time to dial in medication to help her level out.
Surveys suggest that roughly two-thirds of all adults know someone impacted by mental health issues, and a sizable percentage of them manifest for the first time before age 24.
Holdsclaw is helping shine light on these issues.
"I think it's valuable because a lot of people don't realize how important it is, and they don't realize that they have this help available," said freshman volleyball player Nicole Alford. "What she said is important because some athletes don't realize that you need to take care of yourself emotionally . . .
"There was a girl in my club volleyball when I was in high school . . . she struggled with depression. It was triggered after she lost somebody. She really leaned on her teammates, but she sought help and I think that what was most important. She sent out signs that she needed help without actually saying it."
Holdsclaw advised student-athletes to take their own signs and those of others seriously. That might be overwhelming sadness, anxiety, lack of motivation, erratic and uneven memory and more.
"I really appreciate what she did," Freeman said. "I definitely have to go shake her hand because she not only inspired me, but I can see that the student-athletes were truly engaged with so many questions afterward. This is definitely important for our student-athletes."