At Aspen Ideas Festival, NBA players talk about their struggles with depression

Two NBA players wrestling with depression and anxiety also find themselves wrestling with public perception.

Just how could two 29-year-old men, after all, both of whom make more money in one or two games than most Americans earn in an entire year, suffer from anxiety and depression?

For DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, both of whom discussed their plights with mental health Tuesday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, it’s almost a question not worth dignifying.

It was one moderator Michael Gervais asked them, however, using a comment NBA analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made to ESPN earlier this year to set up the question.

“One of your colleagues had something to say about depression,” Gervais said. “Do you want to respond in any way his take on depression?”

Love responded, “You mean him saying we have all the money and we shouldn’t be depressed? Stupid.”

And they left it at that.

The packed audience roared in delight, but Barkley’s remarks illustrated the public’s misconceptions about mental health, while Love’s swift dismissal of the question illustrated his and DeRozan’s challenges in the arena of public awareness about anxiety and depression.

Barkley’s comments came after NBA commissioner Adam Silver was quoted as saying in March that many NBA players are unhappy and “part of it is a direct result of social media.”

“Listen, he’s a great guy,” Barkley said. “But that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard any commissioner say. Listen … these guys are making $20, $30, $40 million a year. They work six, seven months a year. We stay at the best hotels in the world. They ain’t got no problems. That’s total bogus.”

Yet DeRozan and Love, both of whom broke their silence about depression last year, said their professional careers haven’t been defined by a life of glamor and fame, even though both played in the Olympics and have been named NBA All-Stars.

Love suffered from a panic attack in a November 2017 game, and came out in March 2018 about his ailment. His teammates were down on him, and he wasn’t playing to his potential.

“I felt like I was having a cardiac arrest,” he said of the panic attack. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Love said he was inspired to open up after DeRozan tweeted about his emotional struggles during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in February 2018.

Since going public, both said they feel as though their emotional struggles have eased but haven’t gone away entirely. Their struggles intensify when they’re away from playing hoops; the two said that’s because they don’t have the same feeling of control off the court as they do on it.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” DeRozan said of his past 30 days. “I’m not going to lie. But me being more aware of it and being able to have people in my life now that I open up with or I’m able to talk to, or even at times just checking on me in the sense of having conversations, clearing my mind, helping me try to identify what’s causing my moods, shorten them where before they would linger on for a couple of days, a couple of weeks.”

The two players now can talk freely and openly about their challenges, saying they now have a “higher purpose” in convincing others with similar issues that they are not alone and there is help.

“We are looked at as superheroes in a lot of ways,” Love said. “Indestructible. And there’s a feeling of invincibility, like when you’re a little kid, but there are so many layers to the human being.

“People forget, I think, they don’t take a step back and look at us as human beings, and all we want to do is have that human connection and so much of that is lost, and having that isolation, going out in public, or being away from anything basketball-related can create and you can be subject to that sort of feeling on an everyday basis. That, in itself, is something we have to go through.”

Love recently signed a four-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for $120 million.

DeRozan drew a salary of $27.7 million for this past season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Yet, financial wealth doesn’t translate to emotional well-being, Gervais said.

“Globally, the U.S. and affluent countries are at more risk (to depression and anxiety) than countries of poverty,” he said, also saying that women are more prone to depression than men.

Three hundred million people worldwide experience depression or anxiety on some level, and mental health costs $1 trillion to treat globally, according to Gervais. Some people are afflicted with it at birth, while others “earn it” over time through mounting personal struggles, he said.

Growing up in poverty in Compton, California, DeRozan said he played sports to put him on a path toward a better life. DeRozan said he didn’t compute the level of his depression and mood swings until he joined the NBA. He’ll be entering his 11th season this fall.

“I grew up extremely rough, seeing a lot of things before my mind was fully developed to comprehend a lot of things,” DeRozan said.

Those childhood episodes were stored in the back of his mind, but DeRozan said they came out in other ways — whether through anger, depression or mood swings.

“I definitely think it was a lot of things that I saw when I was growing up, things I witnessed,” he said. “I just got to a point where I want to understand it. I want to know why this is carrying on. I don’t to be that person when I retire — be miserable with a bunch of money. I really want to get to a point where I’m just happy.”


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