It’s Men’s Health Week, and basketball player Brendan Okoronkwo talks about what he learned through dealing with mental health issues.
“I’m struggling with depression”. The hardest four words I’ve had to say.
There was no specific moment in my life that made me depressed. I think it was more a culmination of life events combined with a lack of recognition of the issues, and not allowing myself time to deal. Why? Because I’m a man, that’s what we do. We’re supposed to be strong, right? We are the ones meant to protect others; we should have the answers in difficult times. That’s what I always believed anyway. Despite all the awesome work being done to break down this stigma, it’s still everywhere you look.
I can’t remember what made me finally start talking about it. I think frustration that bottling up my emotions didn’t go so well when I tried it. I wish I knew then what I know now about the whole thing though – maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long if I did.
1) I will not be judged
I’m the loud one in the family, always smiling, always playing pranks, a semi-professional basketball player. I moved away from home for sunny Brighton after uni and found my way into a potentially high paying sales job in recruitment meaning I talk to strangers pretty much all day every day.
How can you be depressed? There are people with worse life situations than you? Just cheer up, you’ll be fine! But you’re always so smiley, what’s changed?
When I sat my family down to tell them those four words, these are just some of the million responses that ran through my mind.
Reality? Silence. Only for a few seconds, I’m sure it was a lot to take in. Then my mum cried, not from shame but because she knew how hard that was for me to share. We hugged, and I honestly felt like I’d taken off a backpack full of bricks I’d been carrying around for months at that moment. My dad who I had never had a conversation anywhere close to this about feelings started to call me every other day for at least 3 months to talk or sometimes just a quick hello. I don’t think he knows how much that meant to just have someone.
2) I can break and make new habits
Sharing gave me safe spaces around me which means I can now recognise when things get bad. I started to look at my habits and how I could make new ‘mini-routines’ to accommodate my mental health. For example, when dealing with lack of rest/sleep, I gave myself a ‘phone curfew’ before bed and replaced the mindless scrolling with meditation and reading.
Another thing I struggled with was feeling distant in social situations. When meeting groups of people (friends or strangers) I make sure I say hello to everyone individually. Sounds small but it means I’m engaged at the start of the interaction, better chance to stay present throughout.
My favourite mini routine is my pre-game basketball routine. Basketball has been a big part of my life, I’ve made lifetime friends through playing and watching and I went to uni partly because of basketball. When I started struggling with my mental health, I lost the passion for it, and everything seemed harder. One time it took me 40 minutes to tie my laces before the game I almost missed the start! I made this routine after that day.
Before every game I warm up without my jersey on, just a warm up top. Then when we’re about to walk out on the court to start the game, I put my jersey on and wipe my feet on the lines at the corner of the court and high-five all my team mates. My jersey is like a superhero cape, look what Clark Kent can do when he’s dressed in blue and red! I’m wiping my feet of any emotions I have from that day or week (good or bad), same way you would if you got home with mud on your shoes – leave it outside! I’m allowing myself to enjoy the moment without distraction. The high-fives are me saying thank you to my team mates and coach for supporting me when I needed it.
A soon as the game starts, I’m fully present, appreciating the people around me and letting myself get lost in something creative.
3) I am not alone
I told my family, I told close friends, I told my boss, I told my basketball coach. Everyone had a story to share on mental health. It was amazing to hear their experiences. It made me realise, people are having these conversations, men are having these conversations! But it seems that they aren’t happening until things get pretty bad.
Good news is though, the conversations are getting louder and it’s starting to be brought into the public eye more. Even some NBA players have been sharing their journeys with mental health like Kevin Love, Nate Robinson and DeMar Derozen.
We all experience the same issues in life – pressure, stress, frustration. Share your story, you’ll be surprised the places you will find support and advice when you do.
4) I can help others one day
From feeling too scared to express how I truly felt, I’m now at a place where I can be open about my journey and since I have been speaking about it, I have had friends, family, people online have reached out with a question or concern. All I have to do is think about the people that gave time to me, the value I received from talking to feel the ability to share my story.
I hope people feel that they are able to talk about their mental health when they do need to, because I do not regret opening up about my struggles. There is no shame, there is no embarrassment asking for help.
Which reminds me…
5) The stigma is not real
Men are brave by sharing how they feel
Men should know asking for help is a sign of strength
Men can remove the stigma and support each other
I remind myself of these all the time. The day we can offer each other help with mental health the same way as if a friend turned to us with a broken leg will be a great day.
If you are struggling with mental health, and feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can reach out to the Ditch the Label Community here.