Katie Lou Samuelson on mental health journey — ‘I realized I needed to ask for help’

When I look back on when I was dealing with depression and anxiety, it feels like I was putting together a puzzle. Slowly at first, because until recently, I didn’t understand exactly what I was working on.

Growing up in California, my sisters and I loved basketball. Bonnie and Karlie went on to play at Stanford, but I took a different route: to the opposite coast and UConn. Other Californians had succeeded there, such as Diana Taurasi, Charde Houston and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and had set the bar high. I was up for the challenge.

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Sure, we had to adjust to the cold of New England and the heat of high expectations. But it was a great place for me: I loved my teammates, coaches and fans. We made four trips to the Final Four, and I left with a national championship. I surprised a lot of people when I was picked No. 4 by the Chicago Sky in the 2019 WNBA draft. Everything seemed pretty great. That’s what I told myself.

I always used to make excuses about why I felt a certain way. I’m hard on myself and became accustomed to a lot of negative self-talk. I used to tear myself down in ways that I didn’t realize I was doing. I was in denial about how I felt. Something in the back of my head convinced me that I was being dramatic and that nothing was actually wrong. I wanted to be seen as reliable, tough and resilient, so I kept it all to myself.

Our coaches at UConn were really good at recognizing things and seeing what was going on. I had moments after games where I needed to break down and cry; sometimes you need to release energy. I remember being in the locker room after a game, crying and upset. The coaches talked to me, asking me what I needed. I said something along the lines of, “Look, I just want to play the next game and I’ll be fine.” And I ended up playing one of my best games. So for the moment, it was solved.

Samuelson: “Last year, I realized I needed to ask for help.” John Bazemore/AP Photo

I was really effective at hiding it; my friends and my family, they had no idea. I kept a lot of everything to myself. That’s one of my issues, too: I didn’t want anyone to feel I was burdening them or making excuses.

Like many athletes, I had to deal with injuries. I broke my foot in the national semifinals my freshman year in 2016, and then didn’t get to play in the NCAA final. Early in my junior year, I injured my ankle, which turned out to be more severe than I thought. I played through it, but needed surgery as soon as the season was over. I spent that summer rehabbing, but made it back for my senior season.

Basketball was always an escape for me: somewhere I could go and not worry about what else was going on. But I pushed myself so hard in basketball, I struggled to find an outlet: something else I enjoyed doing and was passionate about. At times I felt very isolated in the sense that I didn’t have anything else I really felt inspired to do — or connected to — off the court. It’s especially hard as an athlete to be injured when your identity is wrapped up in basketball and you’re still figuring the rest out.

Everything is connected in one way or another. Looking back now, I wasn’t taking care of myself as well as I should have. I wasn’t eating right. I had times where I was sleeping for 13-15 hours a day. I’d get up to go to practice and class, then come back to my room, and that’s about it.

But I was always able to get done what I needed to. For me, that was part of being in denial for so long. I thought about things that I have, my privilege and the opportunity I have that other people don’t. I thought: What right do I have to feel bad? I knew I felt drained and down, but insisted to myself it wasn’t a big deal. It couldn’t be.

Samuelson was traded from the Chicago Sky to the Dallas Wings on Feb. 14. David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

In college, I thought, “Well, in my next journey I’ll be in a better place emotionally. I’ll be in control.” Then starting my pro career, it was, “I feel like this because I’m not playing much, and that’s got to be the reason.” Then you play a little bit more, but that doesn’t help, either. I was constantly in search of a reason why, but I’ve learned that sometimes there just isn’t a specific reason. It’s something that builds up until you can’t hold it in anymore.

Last year, I realized I needed to ask for help. It wasn’t one moment. I just felt so overwhelmed by any slightest inconvenience. Something small would go wrong, and I didn’t know if I was going to break down crying or get very angry. I felt like I had no more control over my emotions. Finally, I reached out to my agent and figured out a plan.

I was able to speak to a mental health professional, someone who had more knowledge than I did. When I started talking about things that I didn’t think made sense, it made perfect sense to them. And I felt this weight lifted from me.

These aren’t easy times for anyone now, with the coronavirus pandemic and how that’s affected all of our lives. I was traded to the Dallas Wings for my second season in the WNBA, but I don’t know when that may start. I’m with my sister Karlie, who’s also on the Wings roster, here in California working out and trying to be ready for whatever happens. I’m thankful to have my family. There is a lot of uncertainty for everyone.

But like I said, I had been searching for other things to develop a passion for besides basketball. I’m getting into photography, and reading more. I’m putting less pressure on myself to have it all figured out or be great at everything and trying to be in the moment. And I want to be part of spreading awareness about mental health, too. It’s a topic that I just recently felt comfortable talking about out loud; it’s been a long journey to get there. The pandemic and knowing how challenging that can be for so many who are either publicly, or maybe privately managing through mental health challenges actually played a big part in my summoning the courage to share.

Samuelson: “Please know that you don’t have to hold it all in. You’re not alone.” Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the biggest things is you finally understand that it’s OK to not be OK, to have sad days, to feel down on yourself. What you choose to do with that is the most important part.

I had the opportunity through Puma to get involved with their support of The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth. As an ally of the LGBTQ community and someone on my own mental health awareness journey, I’ll proudly wear Puma’s new Sky Modern shoe that benefits The Trevor Project. I can use my platform as an athlete to drive conversation and it’s something I feel so lucky to be supported in doing by the WNBA. Players come into the league and feel empowered to talk about who they are and what they believe in because we’ve seen players before us do it. So many of our women, particularly women of color, are leaders and activists and we all take a lot of pride in that leadership.

If you’d asked me in high school, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about mental health. In college, even though I had a lot of resources and was surrounded by caring people, I hid what I was feeling. I wasn’t ready to talk about it, so I wasn’t able to ask for or receive help.

Now, I want to be able to tell others, especially younger kids in sports, that it’s OK to talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a professional right off the bat. It just needs to be someone you are comfortable around and can trust. Then together you can start to figure out the next steps.

Please know that you don’t have to hold it all in. You’re not alone. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There are resources online and people who can help, through places like The Trevor Project. Organizations like them are vital, especially during times like this.

It’s important to get this message out. Anyone can be looking great and be the light in the room, but we don’t know what’s really behind the scenes.

There is no hiding from mental health issues based on what you have, or how successful you are, or what people see of you on the outside. Anyone can be affected, so learn what you can and ask for help when you need it. Everyone’s journeys are different, but more than ever we see how we’re all interconnected. So let’s be kind to ourselves and look out for each other.

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