“The greatest social issue we face”

Royce White has many talents. A mixed martial artist and professional basketball player for the Enemies of the Big3 basketball league, he was the 2009 “Minnesota Mr. Basketball” who led his high school to a perfect 31-0 record his senior year. At Iowa State University, he was number-one on the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocked shots and steals. Despite all that, it was a major health issue, generalized anxiety disorder, that has shaped his life the most. And that drives him to advocate for greater awareness of mental illness and increased access to mental health care.

“Mental health is the greatest social issue we face,” he told the 120 attendees at a talk he gave at Des Moines University in July. The event was co-hosted by the University and the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center.

Royce White shared his experiences with anxiety in his recent talk at DMU.

After months of suffering sweaty-palmed, heart-skipping panic attacks three or four times a day and fearing something was wrong with his heart, White was diagnosed by a Minneapolis physician and prescribed medications. “I started to have the best sleep and my panic attacks went down,” he says. “That changed my life and set the stage for what I went on to advocate for.”

That wasn’t easy. Drafted by the NBA’s Houston Rockets as an Iowa State student, White was stunned to learn its collective bargaining agreement made no mention regarding players’ mental health.

“There was no other college or professional athlete talking about that at the time. There wasn’t just ignorance about mental health; there was a real contempt toward it,” he says. “I had a discussion with the general manager that we need a plan going forward. That led to months and months of fighting behind the scenes. Mental health was a liability to them.”

Outspoken about his anxiety disorder and the great need for mental health care, White has worked to counter some grim realities: Research shows that men and boys are less likely to visit a health care provider for mental health services and more likely to commit suicide, abuse alcohol or drugs, or harm others as a result of depression, anxiety and other issues related to mental health.

“Help-seeking rates are very low for everybody, but they’re even lower for men,” says Jeritt Tucker, M.S., Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who most recently served as assistant professor of behavioral medicine, medical humanities and bioethics at DMU. “Men adhere to gender norms because there are some benefits to doing that – for example, typically higher salaries and greater positions of power than among women. But there is a downside to that. Men learn to hide the vulnerable parts of themselves and may externalize sadness as anger or violence. Masculine norms are incompatible with seeking help.”

One way to address that, Tucker says, may be interventions that speak to those gender norms. Letting men and boys know it’s the “tough thing” to seek help, using sports analogies like “teaming up” to fight depression, and appealing to financial interests – that getting help early can save money and time – are possibilities. So are discussions like White’s presentation.

“We need to help people understand that seeking counseling for mental health issues is like seeking medical treatment for a broken leg,” Tucker says. “We have to start somewhere.”

DMU has taken another step toward enhancing mental health care. Last year, it became the nation’s first medical school to partner with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s leading advocacy group for mental illness, to offer NAMI’s provider education program to osteopathic medical students.

As for professional basketball, the National Basketball Players Association hired its first mental health director in May 2018. A professor in the counseling program at Loyola Marymount University, William Parham, Ph.D., ABPP, credited White and other players for being instrumental in taking that step.

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