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Former NBA Star Ben Gordon Discusses Barley Surviving Untreated Bipolar Disorder

Article Written by: Priscilla María, Mental Health Advocate and Writer

Ben Gordon recently penned a candid essay about coping with severe panic attacks, debilitating insomnia and incessant suicide ideation. In fact, Gordon attempted suicide and became “obsessed” with the idea of ending his life. Despite all this chaos, he refused to talk to a therapist about his mental health struggles. He saw himself as a “typical black male” in that his problems were “nobody else's business” and that white therapists couldn't understand his pain. Consequently, he compartmentalized all the “anger and pain and fear” he felt. Thankfully, he had basketball as an outlet for his obsessive personality and homicidal thoughts.

After his career ended, however, Gordon's dangerous thoughts took priority over his hygiene and responsibilities. Eventually, he was arrested and then committed to a mental hospital. At this point, he lost touch with reality and started to disassociate from his body. After completing 18 months of court-mandated therapy, Gordon voluntarily signed up for six extra months. Gordon stepped out of his comfort zone and talked about his traumas, fear and pain to someone trained to help him. Today, he encourages his brothers to follow the same path towards healing by saying, “Don’t worry about what anybody says. Don’t worry about how your boys react to it, or about what people got to say about it on social media.” Gordon hopes others feel empowered to talk about their mental health journeys and commit to their healing.

The fact that Gordon is alive today to tell his story is a miracle. His life could have been cut short by suicide or police brutality. His exceptional athletic career and wealth confirms that money and fame cannot heal trauma or pain. Additionally, his extraordinary life reaffirms that living with a mental health condition does not preclude someone from achieving their dreams. Gordon joins Metta World Peace and Delonte West as valiant Black NBA players publicly living with bipolar disorder.

In recent years, the NBA has taken an interest in the mental health of its predominantly Black teams. For instance, during the 2019-2020 season, the NBA implemented several new rules such as: requiring teams to add at least one psychologist or behavioral therapist to their full-time staff, to retain a licensed psychiatrist, and to have a “written action plan” to address mental health emergencies. In addition to the NBA taking official action, several NBA players have spoken openly about their mental health experiences and traumas such as DeMar DeRozan with his depression and Keyon Dooling with his PTSD stemming from childhood sexual abuse.

Unlike these famous athletes, most Black people living with bipolar disorder are undiagnosed and are not receiving treatment. This reality exists for several reasons such as: a valid distrust of the majority-white medical field, cultural barriers between many medical professionals and patients of color, and the fact that 25% of Black Americans are uninsured. The good news is bipolar disorder is treatable and that there are many resources available to get help. For instance, the Open Path Collective is a network of mental health professionals that use a sliding scale and offer counseling at a significantly reduced cost. Additionally, the staff at your local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter can help you find local support groups and affordable counseling.

Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder are not punishments, curses or reasons to carry shame. Like diabetes or lupus, bipolar disorder is a chronic condition that is treatable and does not prevent someone from living a productive, successful and happy life. Ben Gordon bravely stopped living behind a mask and owned his healing from a lifetime of pain. His liberation from secrecy and isolation are both inspiring and exemplary. Whether we live with a mental health condition or live in support of someone who does, we must foster a public environment of compassion and understanding that promotes the open communication and treatment of mental illness. This environment is especially needed for boys and men of color as they continue to be pushed aside in a world that does not prioritize their mental health.

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