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An Olympic Athlete And Champion For Mental Health

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This conversation was recorded just days before Raven Saunders left to compete in the 2021 Olympics, where she earned a silver medal. She used the global platform to take a stand advocating for those who are oppressed. Raven won the medal just days before losing her loving mother. The National Society of Leadership and Success sends their deepest condolences to Raven and her family as they grieve.

After competing in the 2016 Olympics at the young age of 19, Raven Saunders came back home and fell deep into a depression stemming from unresolved childhood trauma. It wasn’t until she saw a therapist at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) that she had a label for what she was going through.

Since then, Raven has taken it upon herself to speak out for athletes struggling with their mental health. It’s her mission to shed light on the common problem and encourage other athletes or anyone with mental health concerns to have the courage to seek help.

 

How Reaching Out to a Previous Therapist Helped

After the 2016 Olympics, Raven came home on a complete high. Everyone knew her name. But she had to immediately dive back into school with a lot on her plate. She got hurt and missed most of her outdoor season and then lost her NCAA  competition after being the reigning champion. She rebounded and won the USA title, only to do horribly at The World Championships. At the time, her self-worth was deeply tied to her athletic performance. She had so much pressure thrust on her and it was overwhelming. No one seemed to notice her struggle with the immense pressure she was under. 

When Raven first got to Ole Miss she worked with a therapist in the athletic department. This therapist was the only person she felt comfortable opening up with who knew exactly what she was going through. When Raven had decided to follow through with attempting suicide, this therapist was the only person she texted. She sent the message unsure if it was even her number anymore. Raven decided if the therapist didn’t respond it was her sign to move forward with her plans. But two minutes later she got the text back that saved her life.

 

The Stigma in the African American Community

When it comes to seeking therapy for mental health issues, Raven feels there is a stigma within the African American community that you don’t talk about your problems to strangers. Upon meeting with the first therapist she was assigned, Raven was hesitant. But by the second session, she laid it all out. Her family never talked about mental health in the past. Until Raven went to her first institution, she didn’t even know that her Grandma also suffered from depression. Raven shares that “In all actuality, I feel like so many of us are holding on to so much that needs to be released that it comes out in other ways, shapes, and forms that we don’t even necessarily realize the connection.” That’s what happened to Raven.

 

How Bryce Gowdy’s Suicide Impacted Raven

When Raven read about the suicide of Bryce Gowdy—a 17-year-old from Deerfield Beach, FL—she knew she had to speak up. Gowdy was a promising athlete and student. However, he and his parents were financially destitute, in poverty and together living in their family car. That situation overwhelmed Gowdy who sadly took his own life just weeks before he was to start college on a full athletic scholarship.

Gowdy’s story made Raven realize maybe there was some athlete somewhere who could recognize her struggling through the same issues and find hope and inspiration in how she’s managed to work through it. When she opened up to the world and shared her story, people called to check in on her. Her community supported her. The more she talked about it, the less of a burden it became. 

Raven is careful to note that she isn’t “cured,” and that that’s not how depression works. But she learned different methods, gained support, and learned how to communicate what she needed emotionally. She learned how to break through depression and anxiety by using the tools available to her.

 

Raven’s Advice to Those Battling Mental Health Struggles

Raven notes that when you’re  depressed, you’re uncomfortable in the space you’re in. She relays that “It’s going to be uncomfortable to start breaking through those things, to reach out to someone, to go see a therapist—and if that therapist doesn’t work—trying to go back and see another one. But you’re worth it.”

What can you do if you’re struggling to work through depression? Raven took it upon herself to say affirmations like, “I’m worthy,” and “I will succeed” even if she didn’t believe it at the moment. The affirmations help her breakthrough, “Get up out of bed, get out of the house and get fresh air.” More importantly, by recognizing her depression, she feels empowered and doesn’t hesitate to call friends and share what she was going through and ask for support. 

She notes that with depression and anxiety, you’re fighting an internal battle that no one else can fight for you. So, she encourages you to “Keep pushing yourself, keep believing in yourself, keep understanding that you’re worth it, and you’re worthy, and you’re worthy of being here.”

 

Listen to this episode to learn about...

  • [0:38] The immense pressure on Raven’s shoulders
  • [4:24] How reaching out to a previous therapist helped
  • [6:53] The stigma in the African American community
  • [8:10] How Bryce Gowdy’s suicide impacted Raven
  • [10:34] Speaking out for athletes everywhere
  • [12:11] The “UNSTOPPABLE” Gatorade + PBS Voices Project
  • [14:49] Raven’s advice to those battling mental health struggles

 

Listen to the bonus episode to learn when Raven discovered she was stronger than many other girls and boys and how her Olympic experience in 2021 differed from her first Olympic games in 2016.

LISTEN TO THE BONUS EPISODE


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