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Kenneth L. Hardin: Mental health isn’t a game

By Kenneth L. Hardin

I learned to swim back in middle school and have been very cautious around large bodies of water since then. 

Today, I’m going to wade into a dangerous reservoir of controversy and risk people unwilling to throw me a life preserver because they’ll be angry with my position. If you just met me yesterday, you know how little I care; I will gladly doggy paddle until I get back to safety. I don’t believe gymnast Simone Biles or tennis star Naomi Osaka are truly suffering from mental health issues, and there was nothing brave or courageous about what they did. 

After saying this, I feel like I went back in time to the 1988 U.S. vice presidential debate and stole a famous line. After candidate Senator Dan Quayle mentioned John F. Kennedy’s name, Senator Lloyd Bentsen said to him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” I draw this comparison because I’ve suffered from bouts of depression since 2000. I know depression. He wasn’t a friend. 

I’m not ashamed to admit it because, unless you’ve never had an extreme amount of stress in your life, faced adversity or dealt with unreasonable scrutiny where you’ve had to defend your name and integrity, well, bless your heart. 

Depression is real. I will say it again because some people might’ve had the TV up too loud or the baby was crying and they didn’t hear me. Depression … is … real. 

If your “blahs” last more than a few weeks or cause you to struggle with enjoying daily life, you may be suffering from clinical depression. Sadly, we don’t take depression seriously. There’s a negative stigma surrounding clinical depression that will make Black folks deny they struggle with it because we don’t want to look weak or feel like we can’t handle our business. We’ll use ridiculous logic like, “I’ll just take it to the Lord” or  “Our people survived slavery and Jim Crow.”

You’re expected to simply suck it up and keep grinding. According to the American Psychiatric Association, only one-in-three Blacks who need mental health care receives it. And compared with whites, Blacks with mental illness have lower rates of mental health service usage.

I’m not questioning that Biles and Osaka aren’t suffering from some form of anxiety, but I do question whether it’s the debilitating kind that has impacted me and so many others. In my humble opinion, Biles quit because she finally realized she wasn’t the perfect gymnastic machine she once was.

There’s no doubt she faced extreme pressure, but you can’t call yourself the G.O.A.T. and then quit when the pressure is on. Neither Tom Brady, Jordan or Ali quit, and they faced pressure at a much higher level. I questioned her sincerity when she quit citing mental health concerns and then came right back to cheer her teammates on. At the peak of my depressive episodes, I found solace in sitting in darkened rooms for days shunning human contact or trying to fight off bouts of debilitating anxiety episodes. I took exception to her dismissive comment that gymnastics is not life. Well, it may have been someone else’s life dream to make it to the Olympics. Because you’ve made an exorbitant amount of money off of it, you should’ve stayed home and allowed someone who would take it more seriously and not quit to realize their dream.

Initially, I was in Osaka’s corner when she exited the French Open early due to mental health concerns, but I started to give her the side eye when I saw her doing the Sports Illustrated cover and lighting the cauldron at the Olympics opening. After she lost her match in the games and refused to address the media, I called BS on her. She cites the heavy weight of pressure when it’s convenient for her to avoid the responsibility of being an adult. There are regular people making a little over minimum wage who are facing real societal pressures that can’t pick and choose when they want to participate in life. They get up, take a deep breath and face their pressures head on. 

I’m one of those people. I would’ve loved to have withdrawn, retreated and quit, but that pesky thing called eating every day and having a place to live took precedence. 

Seeking professional help was the best decision I made to protect my mental and emotional health.  I’m strongly encouraging anyone who stayed with this article to the end, if you’re having any suicidal thoughts, have the “blahs,” have had the blues for a long period or are struggling with isolation from the COVID pandemic, contact a mental health professional.  

Kenneth L. Hardin is a writer who lives in Salisbury, is a former City Council member and is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.  

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