Mental Health Takeover: Former pros join coaches to discuss mental health

·10 min read

Jun. 28—VALDOSTA — The Valdosta High School Performing Arts Center hosted the Sports and Mental Health Takeover Friday evening.

Former NBA player Jumaine Jones, former Atlanta Braves star Otis Nixon and former NFL players Quincy Carter and Anthony Smith joined local head coaches Shelton Felton, Tremaine Jackson and James Lee on a panel to discuss the importance of mental health as well as the underlying factors that contribute to mental health issues on and off the field.

Student-athletes have the pressure to perform on and off the field. Thirty-three percent of college athletes experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or some other form of mental health conditions. Thirty-five percent of professional athletes suffer from mental health crises.

Speaking to an all-Black panel, moderator JaTaryia Thomas highlighted the importance of having a conversation around mental health issues in the Black community.

"Black men have been taught not to show emotions," Thomas said. "They've been told, 'You better not cry,' and that typically results in a child who turns into a teenager who then turns into an adult male who suppresses emotions because they were told not to cry.

"So, when you have a Black man who has suppressed all these issues — they haven't been allowed to be vulnerable, haven't been allowed show emotions — knowing the challenges they face, whether it be through childhood, adolescence or adulthood; you typically have what is presented as an angry Black man."

Thomas also pointed out how males are taught to be aggressive early in childhood and how that co-exists with involvement in sports — particularly in football. Combining that aggressive nature with a dysfunctional home life, Thomas believes "ticking time bombs" can be created.

"Some use the dysfunction to their advantage and can get out of the dysfunction, but think about those who aren't taught the proper coping skills — those who don't have father figures or other men to pour into them," Thomas said. "Black mens' mental health issues are sometimes overlooked because of their athletic abilities. 'We can't lose this great player' is what most think about."

Thomas opened up the floor to members of the panel as Valdosta State head football coach Tremaine Jackson was the first to speak.

Jackson, who became the 11th head coach of Blazer football and the first Black head coach in program history back in January, agreed with Thomas on the statistics surrounding mental health and student-athletes.

"A lot of those statistics are very real and true and have been since I played 20 years ago," Jackson said. "That's honestly why I coach — to change some of those statistics and allow men to show emotion. I cry before every game because I'm not supposed to be there (as a Black man). We've really opened those avenues within our program to try to teach men how to be able to be vulnerable and not bottle everything up.

"That's starting to be the new trend of coaching. I won't speak for Coach Felton, but I've seen him coach and I've seen how he deals with his players. We're trying to change those numbers."

James Lee was hired as the new head boys basketball coach at Valdosta High April 14.

In addition to being a coach, Lee also serves as a school counselor. Lee talked about how critical it is for him to understanding his players outside the parameters of the court in order to maximize their performance.

"For me, (mental health) is definitely a topic I feel is necessary," Lee said. "I talk to my players all the time about being emotionally stable and understanding your emotions. As a player, you can't effectively play the game and be emotional and be passionate if you're not in tune with your emotions and understand how to control them, then a lot of times it will also affect your play.

"For me as a counselor, it's huge to really make those connections with my players outside of just between the lines — understanding them on a daily basis, understanding what makes them go, understanding what discourages them, encourages them. It's so important for them to be positive when it comes to mental wellness in order to help their performance on the field and on the court."

Another aspect discussed during the symposium was childhood trauma and its role in mental health issues. Childhood trauma is defined as a scary, dangerous, violent or life-threatening event that happens to a child ages zero to 18.

Michelle Gertman is the Executive Director at The Haven, a non-profit organization that offers shelter and services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Valdosta.

Gertman talked about her experiences dealing with children that grow up in homes where they are exposed to acts of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

"What we see is the trauma that kids are experiencing in a home where there is domestic violence and how that cycle is when they come into the shelter or they don't actually ask for services and there's no therapy involved or no school counselors that are aware of what the trauma has done to a kid or they're experiencing domestic violence in the home and how that cycle of rage is in that teenager or that child as they come in.

"That cycle tries to continue so what we do when they come in the shelter, the first thing we do is get them with our child advocate to make sure they are in some kind of counseling program, local programs where people can talk to them to see what's going on in the home. School counselors are so important because that's the first line of defense."

Anthony Smith, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, shared his experience of how he dealt with mental health issues when he was younger.

"How I dealt with my mental health issues was just steadily surrounding myself within the brotherhood, staying in those positive environments around encouraging people and not just around anybody," Smith said. "Hanging around anybody can lead you just anywhere. Having direction in everything you do and knowing where you want to go and having that purpose in every move you make is ultimately the decisions your environment and who you hang around."

Jumaine Jones played eight seasons in the NBA after being drafted 27th overall by the Atlanta Hawks in 1999. Jones' career saw him play for the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns from 1999-2007.

Jones, a native of Camilla, Georgia, reveals that much of what became serious mental health issues for him was something he always thought was normal. Being adopted at the age of 3 and not having his father in his life, Jones said, made him feel unwanted.

At 6-foot-8 and 218 pounds, Jones eventually found his sense of belonging through basketball despite many of the childhood traumas he endured.

"The biggest thing for me was understanding that I had an issue," Jones said. "I think a lot in our environment, we don't know if we have those issues. During my childhood, a lot of things I grew up with, I thought was normal and I carried this throughout my childhood. I was adopted at 3 years old, but my mom kept my sister. She came back and got me a year later, which gave me a lot of mental health issues there that I didn't understand. To be able to watch my sister growing up and her father coming to get her every weekend and for me to watch that and trying to understand — where was my father? — just having that feeling of not being wanted.

"Basketball was something that really that changed my feeling because I was wanted. It was something that made me feel like the harder I worked at it, the more people would want me around. That was something I was good at. I was really good at playing sports. The biggest issue with me growing up with so much and witnessing a murder at 13 years old was traumatic, but I didn't know any of this stuff was issues; to grow up in a household where most of my aunts dated married men. I never understood why I was reacting the way I was and why it was so hard for me to keep relationships because this was something I'd seen throughout my childhood. A lot of things, the way I was acting out, I couldn't understand until I went to go get some help and go to counseling and try to understand myself."

Quincy Carter played quarterback at the University of Georgia and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft.

Carter rose to prominence leading "America's Team" in 2003 under head coach Bill Parcells. Carter led the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and an NFC playoff berth.

Prior to training heading into the 2004 season, the Cowboys unexpectedly cut Carter without providing a reason for his release.

Carter reveals he was cut due to a failed drug test. Though Carter was picked up by the New York Jets, he only appeared in seven games and was ruled inactive for the postseason.

Being cut by the Cowboys then being out of the league entirely a year later sent Carter's life into a spiral that saw him have more issues with drugs and run-ins with the law while trying to keep his football career afloat with the Corpus Christi Fury of American Indoor Football (AIF).

Carter, now 44, admits his recovery is still a daily battle.

"I've been able to go through some things, fortunate and unfortunate — substance abuse problems. I'm still in recovery. It doesn't just go away," Carter said. "I was getting to pinnacle parts of my life and my career, then all of a sudden, I wanted to get in the way — smoking weed and drinking and things like that and doing things basically that destroyed my career. Why was I doing some of these things? What was I scared of? Where was the fear coming from? I've been able to do the hard work and put myself around people who are okay with being vulnerable. Staying in that space of people that are not afraid of having these conversations, it's a beautiful thing."

Like Carter, Otis Nixon found himself in a high-profile position in his career when he succumbed to mental health issues.

Nixon was a centerfielder on the Atlanta Braves' 1991 National League Championship team that lost to the Minnesota Twins 4-3 in the World Series. Nixon, who had been arrested on drug charges while playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1987, tested positive for cocaine in September 1991 and subsequently suspended for 60 games — causing Nixon to miss the World Series.

Now in recovery, Nixon's focus is working with children about being open and working through the various obstacles that can affect mental health. As the next generation of youngsters comes along, Nixon believes it is imperative that mental health conversations must be had with the rise of social media.

"I tested positive and couldn't play in my first World Series. It went viral all over the United States. Family, friends — I felt like I let everybody down," Nixon said. "I had to check into rehab and that was the first step. I said, 'Man, I got a problem.' They didn't have to tell me. I knew I had a problem.

"What I teach these kids is how to work through your problems, your anger, your vices and how you speak to people. This generation now, we've got to get through to them because they are off the chain."

Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.