Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 23, 2020

Delonte West’s story sheds light on the mental health of athletes

By CYNTHIA HU | October 8, 2020

delonte-west

Keith Allison/CC BY-SA 2.0

Delonte West struggled with mental health issues for the entirety of his career. However, these issues don’t define him or his story.

Delonte West, former NBA (National Basketball Association) point guard, was pleading for help. Dressed in an oversized white sweater and grey sweatpants, West stood at a Dallas intersection with a cardboard sign. While this might have come as a shock to some, this was not all that surprising for those who followed West’s story.

In 2016, West was photographed in Houston, barefoot and wearing a hospital gown, as well as panhandling in Temple Hills, Maryland, which he initially denied. Earlier this year he was videotaped getting beaten up on a highway in Washington, D.C.

Since his teenage years, West has had issues with substance abuse and self-harm and spent time in children’s hospitals. 10 years ago West opened up about his struggle with bipolar disorder. In an interview with ESPN, West spoke about an earlier altercation where he took out his frustrations on a high school referee officiating a training camp scrimmage.

"I felt a feeling of anger, and I just wanted to throw it all away and quit the team," he said. “I needed help.”

For years people knew about his struggle with mental health, but that didn’t stop them from mocking him.

Following an incident in 2009 where West was found carrying three guns at a traffic stop in D.C., National Public Radio seemed to try to turn this serious situation into a joke. In their article the lede read “Delonte West of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers is apparently serious about his role as a shooting guard. Too serious,” making a reference to his position on the court.

In 2012, Bill Simmons, an American sports analyst, named West as one of “The 20 Craziest Players in the NBA” due to his instability on and off the court.

Since West resurfaced into the public eye, many players have offered their support and have spoken publicly about their own struggles with mental health and the lack of support and services from the NBA.

“Sad to hear the news about Delonte West. We failed him,” former NBA player Royce White tweeted. 

His own career was stopped short due to the NBA not addressing his mental health challenges. 

“We should be talking about mental health honestly all the time, not just when celebrities are in crisis,” he wrote. “Let’s not caricature the mental health topic through Delonte’s struggles... Check your own coffee mug first.”

Phil Martelli, West’s former coach at Saint Joseph’s University, tweeted that he was working to get West help. Jameer Nelson, another NBA player and former teammate of West at Saint Joseph’s, tweeted his support for West and how people struggling with mental health should seek out professional help immediately.

Due to COVID-19, the NBA created the bubble, a closed environment that allowed players to safely play basketball. Located at Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Fla., Disney facilities — such as their pools, golf courses, gaming areas, bowling lanes and spa services — are open to the players. Even so, players had to remain in the bubble for the entirety of the season with little chance to see their families. Some had referred to it as a prison sentence. 

Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers recently talked about his struggle with depression and anxiety while inside the bubble. He mentioned how there was no escape from basketball. As the season progressed, he eventually went to see the team psychiatrist and received overwhelming support from his fellow players and coaches.

"I mean, we're all dealing with it," George said. "Whether I was the first to say it or not, we're all dealing with it. I've had conversations with guys here, and there's been a couple guys that are like, man, I'm happy I'm not the only one. I've been dealing with this, too. It's a thing in here. It's a brotherhood. We support one another."

But it’s not just basketball players. Athletes from all sports have dealt with pressures for the entirety of their careers.

28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps has spoken about his battle with depression.

“After every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” Phelps said in a 2018 interview

He has admitted to having suicidal thoughts and using drugs to self-medicate. Phelps used his experiences to help others through his own foundation.

Abby Wambach, former member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, also had her run-in with mental health. After being arrested in 2016 for driving under the influence of intoxicants, she sought out help for her longtime drug and alcohol addiction.

“It’s really hard to talk about things when you’re ashamed,” Wambach said. “And I’m not ashamed about what happened to me anymore because it led me to where I’m at right now. I’m proud of where I’m at.”

Luckily, in recent years the conversation surrounding mental health has become less taboo. Sports leagues are taking steps to provide resources to their athletes.

In 2018 the NBA required teams to add full-time mental health professionals for the 2019-2020 season. Also, athletes are required to attend programs so they can be educated about mental health and treatment.

Major League Baseball (MLB) has increased efforts in generating and destigmatizing mental health awareness by launching their own mental health initiative. The Los Angeles Dodgers took advantage of this MLB initiative to create a position known as the minor league mental health coordinator, who is responsible for “leading, implementing, and organizing a variety of services directly related to mental and emotional health.”

Still, these steps do little to help former players in similar situations to West. So what’s going to happen to him?

Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks (the team that West played his final NBA season with), has tried to help West multiple times. In 2014, Cuban attempted to connect West with a financial advisor but was unsuccessful.

This past Monday, Cuban was filmed picking up West at a gas station in Dallas.

“I can confirm that I found him and helped him,” Cuban said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The rest is up to Delonte and his family to tell.”

Cuban took West to a nearby hotel and offered to pay for his mental health and drug rehabilitation treatment. West has since checked into a rehab facility in Florida. Hopefully he can continue to improve and cope with his difficulties with the appropriate help. We’re all rooting for him.

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or mental illness, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s hotline at 1-800-662-HELP or seek out a professional.

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