Michael Kasdan talks to ex-NBA player Royce White about the importance of accelerating the conversation about mental health—in the NBA and beyond.
Mike Kasdan: You run an organization called the Anxious Minds Foundation. What are the goals? Please explain your vision for it.
Royce A. White: The goal of Anxious Minds is to continue to move the conversation and issue of mental health forward. We believe mental health to be one of the most important topics humanity faces today and will continue to face moving into the future. In order for any field to progress to its full potential, there must be dedicated people to keep the discussion going. We want to be a part of that progress. The more mental health discussion unfolds visibly, the clearer the landscape becomes. We believe, like any other social issue, discussion will yield solutions. That is our ultimate goal, to see mental health become less of hindrance on people’s lives and a tool to access a better quality of life.
MK: What inspired you to write “We Can’t Breathe Either.” Are you planning more writing?
Royce A. White: The inspiration for the “I Can’t Breathe Either” piece came from a place of sympathy. Coming from a community where the tension between the police and civilians was high, I got to see some of those injustices up close. At the same time, as I got older and became more familiar with mental health and its importance, I started to see all conflict from a more pragmatic lens. The police have a tough job, the nature of it alone makes them prime candidates for severe anxiety, depression and PTSD. Ultimately the loss of life is always a tragedy. I felt like as important as racism is, the topic of mental health definitely supersedes it. Whether you believe these unjust killings are a result from the natural pressures of being law enforcement or pure racism, both are a impacted significantly by mental health. As are many other huge social discussions, worldwide. Mental health is a discussion of how we interact with each other and with ourselves in our own minds. That is important for every living human being on this planet.
I will do more writing, I am actually in the process of publishing my first book. It will cover more intimate details of my experiences up until this point in my life. I’m honored to have the opportunity to contribute my ideas to humanity. I will continue to write and work for the future of humanity for the remainder of my life.
MK: What is the biggest problem you perceive now in sports and in society in addressing mental health, depression, anxiety etc. What can we do about it?
Royce A. White: I think stigma stands firmly in the way between mental health and all the care and solutions that are possible. It’s getting better, but there are still many outdated beliefs about mental health. In the intermediate, the results of the outdated beliefs are very significant and be tragic. Meaning, our curve for changing our mind on the topic, both individually and systemically is paramount. The stigma that being mentally ill or having struggles with mental health conditions is character flaw—or that mental health is synonymous with being crazy or negative is wrong.
As society advances, we now know that perspective to be inaccurate. Through the work of many people and hours of science, we now know that the integration of mental health is the only logical path. Now it’s about the public accessing that progress wholly. Mental health is something that is always going on this with us as humans. It is a major part of the makeup of our whole health. With this idea, all of us should be conscious of our mental health. It would benefit everyone to be educated on mental health, not just the mentally ill or those that support the mentally ill.
I think too often we lose sight of the effect mental health is having on nearly every element of our society. The workplace, homeless, unemployed, education, family life, general health, law enforcement, military and veterans just to name a few. With the stigma slowly being decreased, and people becoming more comfortable with discussing their experiences with mental health, we could see infinite improvements in countless areas of society. I also think people are afraid of the accountability they think may come with mental health and how it may cause major adjustment in their own life. The new ideology of whole health and more individual accountability may have implications in every facet of our lives, I think people fear that. I think in many cases people are unaware of the impact of mental health in their life already. Or they just call it stress. It’s my opinion that through the advancements of mental health, humanity has been handed the key to our own evolution.
MK: Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get here? Do you resent the NBA, the Rockets?
Royce A. White: My journey has been like everyone’s journey. It’s had its highs and lows. Resent is not something people working for progress have the luxury of. History has shown us that people advocating progressive ideas are often the first to see the full force of resistance, and the desire to keep things as they are. So, if you want to be a part of progress, unfortunately you’re signing up for the roller coaster.
“We don’t do a very good job with mental health,” said an NBA team executive as he looked down at the sad contents of his boxed lunch and sighed. “We don’t have any answers, and we’re not doing a good job looking for them.”
This was three years ago at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston. I’d asked about the status of a player who had had some early success but had fallen off the NBA map after a short stint with the exec’s team.
He lamented that, too often, he and his head coach were charged with the job of evaluating and counseling guys who—in his estimation—were likely suffering from mental health conditions that professionals should be diagnosing and then treating. The exec said that he had taken it upon himself to read up on current trends in brain research but that he was in far over his head.
About 15 months later, a general manager from a different team called and vented about his helplessness with a recent signee who, he suspected, was grappling with mental health issues. The player was visiting an independent psychologist not associated with the team, but his problems persisted. The league offered mentorship from player-development specialists who were well-versed in advising players on how to handle their newfound wealth and family issues, but the GM said it probably wasn’t enough. Hunting for a solution, he approached the team owner about investing in a mental health program for his new signee.
“I just gave him $30 million worth of mental health,” the owner said.
Two months later, the general manager enumerated additional concerns he had—including the ineffectualness of the players’ union in pushing for mental health reforms and a league substance abuse policy that punished players for smoking weed, but didn’t do an adequate job of addressing underlying mental health issues that might be driving the offending player to self-medicate.
MK: Are you reaching out to other athletes? Doctors? Therapists? Organizations?
Royce A. White: Currently, as an organization, we are reaching out to anyone who believes in the importance of mental health and has a genuine desire to help. We’ve already been shown support by so many and we wish to continue to grow the network of people who see the significance of this issue. There are so many great organizations out there that fight against the same inequalities. There are so many organizations out there that have supported me through this tough time in my life, now it’s time for me to join them in the fight. We plan to partner with a number of great organizations and individuals to achieve the best results for mental health.
Michael Kasdan: What is your take on the Larry Sanders’ piece?
Royce A. White: I think it’s admirable Larry Sanders disclosed his struggle to the world. That takes a great deal of humility and fortitude. Effective support is so reliant on people disclosing their struggles, even more, feeling safe to disclose. Larry Sanders’ story is a great sign that mental health is worth dedicating resources to. People can communicate their struggles and get help and better results. As his situation relates to the league, I don’t know enough information to comment on. What I can say is that it’s obvious that the prevalence of mental health in sports is becoming more clear to everyone. Just as the prevalence of mental health in society in general has always been there—but it has only been scarcely acknowledged. It’s becoming clear that the implementation of more thorough mental health systems isn’t at all far-fetched. On the the contrary, it is necessary and overdue.
Mike Kasdan: Anything else you want to tell us or messages we can help you get out?
Royce White: It’s time for the way we treat our minds to take center stage. Collectively we can all work together to create better results for ourselves. Think of a day where the advancements we’ve made in science all across the world, start to reflect more heavily in the area of mental health. Less depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, ADD, ADHD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Autism, etc… The world becomes a much better place, but just how much better is the most exciting part. The potential is almost incomprehensible.
About Royce A. White: Royce White is currently the founder and acting CEO of Anxious Minds, Inc., an organization that is dedicated to the global acceptance and progress of mental health. Royce gained considerable support in the health community for his public advocacy for mental health acknowledgement and parity. He has also used that platform to dialogue about human welfare within corporate culture and politics. He has pledged that his company Alexander North LP will seek harmony between humanitarianism and entrepreneurship.
Photo of Royce White: AP Photo / John Bazemore