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LA Sparks Host Roundtable on Mental Health

The WNBA continues to be ever-present in the conversation surrounding activism and social awareness. Typically the universal message regarding this topic is geared towards “What are you doing to help others?”. But the Sparks decided to tackle a question that is often neglected: “What are you doing to help yourself?”. Rushia Brown moderated an amazing discussion with an esteemed panel.

High school/college student athletes and media heard very poignant thoughts on an array of topics from the following:

  • Rushia Brown – Founder/President of Women’s Professional Basketball Alumnae (WPBA)
  • Fred Williams – Assistant Coach, LA Sparks
  • Kristine Anigwe – Forward/Center, LA Sparks
  • Dr. Angel Brutus – Director of Counseling and Sport Psychology, Mississippi State University
  • Eric Kussin – Founder, We’re All A Little “Crazy”
  • Dr. Kensa Gunter – Licensed Clinical and Sport Psychologist

The panelists seamlessly mixed two usually uncomfortable topics in racial tension and mental health. Given the present climate of the country, the former has gone from a footnote to a bold heading. Mental health discussions have become more mainstream in recent years. Several athletes have come forward with their struggles recently. The conversation is still mainly centered around acknowledgment. But this dialogue took an extremely deep dive into the many causes and effects of mental illness. Panelists also gave effective tools to deal with the stressors we all face on a daily basis.

The current state we are living in brought back a lot of memories for Coach Williams. He said this is reminiscent of events as early as the Watts Riots of the 60’s. Adversely, it echoes circumstances as recent as the Rodney King Riots of the early 90’s. Both events were birthed from situations involving police brutality. Those actions were followed by a lack of accountability or disciplinary action of any kind for the officers involved. Fast forward to present day. The murders of Ahmad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have once again forced the nation to confront the disease of racial injustice that’s plagued this country since its inception.

Coach Williams expressed that this time felt a little different. He said the collective voice of athletes/celebrities and the general public alike have created a platform that could lead to the biggest shift we’ve ever seen in this fight. While Coach Williams was happy about the response, he did point out that it was problematic that we are still combating the same issues we faced from 55 years ago.

Kristine Anigwe took the discussion a step further and delved into the plight of the African American woman. She pointed out the stark contrast in the coverage of George Floyd’s death in comparison to Breonna Taylor’s. She stated that it’s “exhausting questioning that if something happens to a black woman, who is going to fight for her.” Even though they may feel marginalized, women are often the loudest voice in speaking out against injustices. The ladies of the W have been leading that charge for a long time. Kristine has personally used her platform to pursue women’s rights and fight against issues like domestic violence and child abuse. Maya Moore famously stepped away from basketball to tackle the flaws in the criminal justice system. And more recently, Renee Montgomery has chosen to forego the 2020 season to fully dedicate herself to the fight at hand.

Anigwe felt it was paramount to use her platform to help those communities she felt was underrepresented. Ironically, her ambition in this regard tied back to her own mental health. While in college, she started to experience anxiety and have panic attacks. After initially trying to gain control of this by herself, she ultimately realized she would need help. She said, “I’m not going to be able to help anyone if I can’t help myself.” She reached out to her coach who directed her to some resources the team had at their disposal. Through this process, she learned to be more vulnerable and ask for help. She also stated that self-care was extremely vital in this process. Journaling and meditation helped her tremendously. Working towards that balance in college helped her in her professional life.

She is still in the early stages of her career but she has experienced a lot of change in a short period of time. Going through that much transition and instability can weigh on you. Not being grounded would undoubtedly exacerbate any existing strain on your mental well being.

Dr. Brutus built on this by saying that athletes are often viewed as super-human. She also added that the natural inclination is to try to handle everything internally. The competitive nature of the athlete could be their worst enemy in an effort to regain their mental footing. She also spoke to how this is tied into being on the front lines of the battle for racial equality. Dr. Brutus said that finding your voice is a key component to this. And in the midst of finding your voice, you’re also remembering who you are. But this is tiring work. She emphasized that you should check in with your body daily. It’s important to know where your stressors are coming from.

Most people view mental health as an emergency juncture that should only be explored in a time of crisis. But Dr. Brutus expressed that maintenance is most important. “You wouldn’t drive your car without regular check ups. Treat your body the same way.” She said emphatically that mental health is physical health.

Dr. Gunter talked about lightening your emotional backpack. She explored the snowball effect of recent events and how they affected the psyche. During the beginning stages of the pandemic, people were filled with anxiety. Then when the shelter in place orders began, she pointed out that they were stripped away from their support systems. And some were even confined to situations that were not healthy and potentially dangerous. While we seemed to be gradually coming out of the restrictive confines of COVID, the racial incidents occurred. She stated how simultaneously dealing with that trauma without fully cleansing ourselves of the previous damage could lead to angst and depression. Dr. Gunter said that it’s important to think how we take care of ourselves from a mental and emtional standpoint. It is a very challenging time.

Eric Kussin touched on how mental health is fluid and honestly pretty fragile. He tapped into his own personal experiences and how they changed his perspective on what mental health is. Kussin divulged that “having a front row seat to watching people go through challenges affects your mental health.” People don’t take into account that trauma can be passed through osmosis.

The panel gave their final thoughts and encouraged everyone to be mindful with their self care. They stressed that monitoring you intake is a vital form of self care. In the information era, we can be bombarded with videos, articles and posts that heavily weigh on us. Continuously seeing the murder of a Black man on a perpetual loop is not conducive to being mentally healthy. The panelists just emphasized to make sure you include some positivity in your daily consumption. Dr. Brutus suggested posting positive quotes or funny videos to “confuse the algorithms”.

This was a much needed conversation. The panelists spoke candidly with vulnerability and conviction. Some vital information was presented and it will unquestionably benefit those who were a part of it. The WNBA continues to provide perfect directions for navigating through societal issues. Platforms and discussions like these that lean into tough issues will only yield positive results. While basketball will resume shortly, the league nor its players or constituents will allow the focus to be taken of what they feel is truly important.

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Raymond Lyons
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Hoops Enthusiast. Self Proclaimed Genius. Native Washingtonian. And I know the first and last names of every character on The Simpsons. I have a deep passion for the game of basketball. I have played, reffed, coached and now reporting / blogging.

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