Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be Kept In Closet

mental healthHow special it is when celebrity athletes use their gifts to “win” at causes other than sports.

Royce White is a collegiate-turned-professional basketball player. Like many outstanding college players, White gained national attention in high school, which led to an NCAA career. After his sophomore year at Iowa State University, White entered the NBA draft, eventually playing for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and two teams in the NBA’s D League.

What makes this 23-year-old basketball player different from others? Royce White is fighting a mental illness, and he is using his voice and platform to make a difference for others facing the same challenges.

Diagnosed with both generalized anxiety disorder and pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying), White’s illnesses have caused many challenges related to playing the game he loves.

Instead of trying to hide it, however, he’s opened up a conversation about mental health, standing up for a population that has remained silent for too long. “My advocacy for mental health will be there regardless of whether I’m playing or not,” White told USA Today.

In that same article, White challenged others with mental illnesses to speak up and suggested that major sports organizations like the NBA do the same, becoming advocates for mental health awareness.

The spotlight White casts on mental illnesses needs to not just stay there, but grow wider and brighter.

Last year, as part of my graduate teacher preparation program, I traveled to London where I worked with a young woman who heard as many as seven voices inside her head each day, which even with the best possible treatment made it difficult for her to achieve academic success. On days the voices were quiet, she was able was able to read and write. Other days, when the voices screamed, she could do almost nothing.

Her voices were a part of her identity, but she constantly feared they made her too different to be accepted or understood. Even on quiet days, the idea that peers might reject or laugh at her was debilitating, and it broke my heart. Working with her showed me the importance of acceptance, no matter what a person’s race, culture, disability or illness is.

As many as one in four Americans experiences mental illness. One in 17 Americans lives with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Mental illness is not something that makes people different and monstrous. It is a part of our human identity.

All of our worlds shook when we experienced the tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown sparked by a young man’s apparent mental illness, and they continue to shake with every school and public shooting that occurs.

President Barack Obama’s recent signing of Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s “Excellence in Mental Health Act” is a progressive step toward positive change. Designed to provide expanded access to community mental health services, the bill represents the first of many things we, as a society, need to do to strengthen, enrich and improve the lives of those with mental illness.

Teachers also need to better understand how to best teach and support students with mental illness. School staff are often the first to identify the possibility of mental illness. I propose that teacher preparation programs include at least an overview of common mental health signs and symptoms as part of in their curriculum. The silence needs to stop. The fear needs to disappear. This is a call to action, because as Royce White said, we’re not doing enough

Only when we acknowledge and work as a team for mental health change, we will all be champions.

Lisa Kivell, 22, of Stamford recently received her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.


Copyright 2014 This publication first appeared in the Hartford Courant on June 10, 2014.