Over the weekend, Mays Gaming partnered with For Oak Cliff to address mental health in competitive Esports. Dr. Nyaz Didehbani and Mavs Gaming head coach LT Fairley reinforced positivity in gaming and provided additional resources to foster a holistic mental health experience.
Then on Tuesday, the Dallas Mavs hosted an in-person session of the HUDDLE and focused on the significance of mental health and its role within marginalized and underserved communities. The Mavs honored the month by collaborating with local organizations to host an interactive discussion around erasing mental health stigma.
It is a gathering that creates a safe space for dialogue and the opportunity for individuals to learn and unite with a diverse group of current and former Dallas Mavericks players, team representatives and community figures to eliminate racial divides while uplifting communities and empowering future generations.
This month’s HUDDLE topic was themed “Mental Health Decoded,” and community leaders discussed racial and ethnic disparities surrounding mental health (click here for access to the resource guide).
Other discussions included the importance of access to services for marginalized populations, navigating mental health while supporting social justice efforts and how to support those around you. The Mavericks were joined by the Grant Halliburton Foundation and other local nonprofits and organizations.
Guest panelists included Dr. Sheeza Mohsin, CEO of the Muslim Community Center for Human Services (MCCHS). She was joined on stage by Dr. Anita Phillips, a nationally-acclaimed trauma therapist, renowned teacher/pastor and host of In The Light podcast.
Chris Thomas, co-founder and CEO of The Defensive Line, also served as a panel guest. He is the father of NFL veteran Solomon Thomas and the late Ella Elizabeth Thomas, who died by suicide at the age of 24. The family is on a mission with their organization to end the epidemic of youth suicide, especially for young people of color, by transforming the way people communicate and connect about mental health.
Hearing the Thomas family’s journey is especially important for sports communities as more and more athletes step forward to openly discuss mental health and how it impacts their lives and families.
Life for the Thomas family of four started to shift in 2011 when a traumatic event happened to Ella while away at college, her father Chris shared.
She later suffered from PTSD, anxiety and depression, but the depth of her pain wasn’t always apparent. Chris explained how he didn’t know the warning signs and now he wants others to understand what happened to Ella.
Suicide is often stigmatized in the United States, where it is the second-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Many times, like in Ella’s case, the pain goes under the radar because young people do their best to act happy around others.
Ella continued to quietly battle with her illness in her early 20s, all the while, providing sunshine and hope to uplift others. She was a compassionate soul and ray of light, her family says. In 2017, Ella sat alongside her family at the NFL Draft to cheer on her brother when Solomon was drafted No. 3 overall.
Watching the video back, you can’t help but notice the glow in Ella’s eyes when her little brother’s name was announced. She spent that fall attending Solomon’s games with her parents and they explored the world together and life seemed on the upswing.
The family had no idea the amount of turmoil and pain Ella was living with during that time.
On January 23, 2018, Ella took her own life.
The word devastated is an understatement and no one was prepared for the days and years that followed.
Later the family learned Ella spent the final two hours of her life sending encouraging messages to her friends. She was a lover until the very end.
Chris and his wife, Martha, along with their son Solomon knew they had to step forward and speak boldly — and authentically — to help other families.
Now the Thomas family is grappling with the impact of losing their only daughter while battling grief and trying to pick up the pieces without her. Still, they will continue to say Ella’s name and share her story if it means helping one other person.
Their work has been extraordinary. In 2019, Martha, Chris, and Solomon were recipients of the AFSP Lifesaver Award.
“We have tried to create a situation with The Defensive Line where we have turned our pain into purpose,” Chris Thomas told the audience today.
“We call it The Defensive Line because suicide is increasing among people of color. We want to transform how we communicate and connect about mental health. We think it’s important to tell our story because the more we talk about mental health — or what we call mental wellness — and suicide prevention, the more people are reached. It’s bigger than Ella. As much as I love my daughter, and I thank God each morning for the 24 years we had with her, I know it’s impacting other people of color, too. It’s a significant issue, and we have to talk about it.”
Some of the critical facts Thomas shared:
“If I had known some of the signs and that my daughter was in so much pain that she had to leave this earth, I think our family would have done some things differently,” Thomas said. “We are ordinary people who want to change the landscape with mental health.”
Some of the signs can include sleeping too little or too much, talk of being a burden to others, giving away things and isolating from family and friends. Thomas really stressed the importance of asking your loved one or friend whether they are considering suicide. Be direct. Talking openly is the first step and he said it’s often a relief to the person to know that it’s all right to talk about it.
Verbal signs might include sayings like:
There’s a variety of reasons researchers cite for disparities in mental health utilization among marginalized communities including provider discrimination, stigmas, mistrust of the healthcare system, lack of adequate health insurance, high costs, and limited awareness of mental illnesses.
Others noted that some people perceive mental illness as something that can be overcome using willpower and mental toughness.
Many of these issues are deeply rooted and include cultural, structural, socioeconomic and economic factors. Sometimes even healthcare providers lack awareness about cultural factors that undermine the patients’ trust in healthcare providers.
All these topics were discussed at The HUDDLE and many attendees shared their viewpoints with panel leaders adding their expert opinion to help.
Dr. Sheeza Mohsin is a personal growth and relationship expert focusing on multicultural clients and their unique issues.
She became CEO of The Muslim Community Center for Human Services (MCCHS) during the pandemic, and her organization provides accessible and/or affordable healthcare, social services, and educational services to those who face barriers. She works with couples and families in the United States and around the globe.
MCCHS meets the health and social service needs of more than 160,000 immigrants and families from South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa who reside in North Texas.
She had profound words for the entire HUDDLE audience, but her very practical advice about interviewing potential therapists was something that resonated with attendees.
“What I do in my practice is that I do not accept any client unless they have a 30-minute conversation,” Dr. Mohsin said. “So what I’d advise is to look for therapists who are willing to talk to you before you ever pay for service. It’s your right to know if they are connecting with you enough for you to be vulnerable. Also, email them and say you just want to get a good feel before investing your time and financial resources in this process. We have to be assertive and smart with it.”
Mental illness is still highly stigmatized worldwide, but this is especially true in Muslim communities. Many Muslim individuals in North Texas have to battle Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and overcome mental health stigmas deeply rooted in their cultural and religious upbringing.
According to USA Today, cultural assimilation also plays a significant role. U.S.-born Muslims were much more likely to attempt suicide than their immigrant-born predecessors. This is why mental health leaders like Dr. Mohsin are willing to stand at the forefront, and share stories about the many obstacles individuals from underserved communities face each day.
She believes in facilitating systemic change among immigrants and marginalized and minority communities.
Dr. Anita Phillips’ message was also riveting and hit the heart with her words of wisdom and knowledge. She doesn’t want anyone left behind. She provides a faith-based approach to trauma and Dr. Phillips is a voice of healing to many people around the world.
She helped steer The HUDDLE through various topics, including leadership advice and Racial Battle Fatigue was a big topic. The audience was asked to reflect on various questions, such as:
Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF) was a term coined in 2003 by social psychologist Dr. William Smith; it was originally used in reference to the experiences of African American men in America but is now expanded to describe the negative and racially charged experiences of all people of Color (PoC’s) in the United States.
It’s defined as: “cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions. These conditions emerged from constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals.”
RBF can extend across racial barriers and boundaries and it often stems from racism and microaggressions.
Dr. Phillips also made sure to reiterate how mental health impacts many people, regardless of demographics, and she encourages therapy for everyone.
“I want everyone to go to therapy because it’s really important. Therapy is not for mentally ill people. Therapy is for people,” Dr. Phillips said. “Just like you have a dentist on deck and a general practitioner, you should have a therapist on your healthcare team. I want therapy to become preventative care, just like all the other types of care we use. Sometimes, it is difficult to pick apart between race-based traumatic stress, and actual PTSD versus depression, because sometimes depression is an extension of trauma. I don’t want anyone self-diagnosing. Please get the help that you need. We all need to be better.”
She emphasized how anger, like when triggered by the recent racial violence across the country, can undermine our immune systems and make us sicker. She said anger processing is very real, and “it’s not a fuel that burns clean. Anger is like coal. It burns dirty. It will undermine your mental, physical and spiritual health.”
Dr. Phillips said to focus on things that give you hope, energy and refreshes you the most. Focus on roles that nourish your soul.
“Love burns clean,” Phillips said. “Hope burns clean. So when I’m angry and exhausted, I do things that bring me back spiritually and emotionally to love. Those burn clean, and I can keep going.”
Experts agree that it will take time for minority communities to open their hearts and minds to mental health wellness, but they say breakthroughs are happening each day.
The panel leaders today all agreed that marginalized communities need more access to affordable healthcare, mental health counseling, and trauma treatment.
They also really emphasized the importance of watching out for the younger generation.
Nationally, some people say we are in a millennial mental health crisis, and we have seen this even trickle over to the sports community in the last year.
The decline in teenagers’ mental health spans racial and ethnic group barriers and urban and rural areas.
According to a recent article from the New York Times, many hospital and doctor groups have called it a national emergency, citing rising levels of mental illness and a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options.
In a rare move this past December, the U.S. surgeon general even warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. Even more terrifying? The report has insufficient data to explain the crisis, one they say that predates the pandemic. For this reason, communication and education is key and experts say the community has to keep an eye out for young people.
First and foremost, mental health should not be a forbidden topic, and the Mavericks hope to encourage other NBA teams and community leaders to keep these courageous conversations going. More and more athletes are also using their platforms and time with the media to talk about important issues.
This past summer, mental health was at the forefront of Jalen Brunson’s mind when the Dallas Mavs guard was asked about his thoughts on Simone Biles after she withdrew from the Olympics to focus on her mental health.
“Good for her,” said Brunson. “That takes a lot of guts. Sometimes you need to tell yourself that “I need this.’
“There’s a lot of people always going to be in your ear saying, ‘You can wait, you can wait, you can just push through it, push through it.’ But sometimes you know what’s best for you. I applaud her for it.”
The Mavericks have a sports psychologist on staff with the basketball team and the organization believes in a comprehensive approach to athletics. The same goes for the corporate side where the Mavericks have counselors and therapists available for employees free of charge. The NBA also has the NBA Mind Health program that seeks to humanize mental health through engaging, educating and serving the professional basketball community.
The NBPA also has its mental health and wellness program to provide more resources for players. In 2015, all teams in the NBA were granted better access to licensed mental health professionals and counselors.
Just this month, Nike also announced they have launched a new podcast titled “No Off-Season,” that focuses on athletes and their mental health.
These are all steps in the right directions in hopes of bringing more awareness to mental health stigmas, but there’s a ton of work to be done, especially in minority communities. One major takeaway from The HUDDLE today is the pressing need to address mental health care disparities due to a variety of socioeconomic conditions that make healthcare unaffordable for many people in North Texas.
All the panelists at The HUDDLE addressed these hard-hitting topics and allowed the attendees to feel seen and heard. They normalized the logistical and emotional barriers standing in the way for many minority groups and also encouraged others to support those around you who might be struggling with mental health.
As one panelist said: “it’s okay not to be okay.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Confidential online chat is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Crisis Text Line: 24-hour support by texting HOME to 741741. More information at crisistextline.org
North Texas Behavioral Health Authority: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-866-260-8000 or go to ntbha.org
Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas: Speak to a trained counselor on the 24-hour hotline at 214-828-1000 or 800-273-8255 or go to sccenter.org
Here For Texas Mental Health Navigation Line: Grant Halliburton Foundation initiative that connects North Texans with mental health resources customized to each caller at 972-525-8181 or go to HereForTexas.com
The HUDDLE is a courageous conversation series as part of the Mavs Take ACTION! plan launched in 2020 to address racial inequities and promote social justice in the North Texas community. It is a gathering that creates a safe space for dialogue and the opportunity for individuals to learn and unite with a diverse group of current and former Dallas Mavericks players, team representatives and community figures with the goal of eliminating racial divides, uplifting communities, and empowering future generations.
Previous HUDDLE conversations have centered around social justice, trans community allyship, voting rights, opportunities for equity in education, homelessness and hunger, helping Dallas rebound during the pandemic, women in sports, closing the wealth gap and a conversation with President George W. Bush and Dirk Nowitzki about portraits of America’s immigrants. To read more about the Mavs Take ACTION! plan, visit Mavs.com/MTA.