By Bailey Johnson
Mental health is a tricky and often sensitive subject to discuss, but Imani McGee-Stafford is doing everything she can to change that.
McGee-Stafford is open about her own tumultuous mental health journey, and it’s that openness that she feels is crucial in being a mental health advocate.
“When you look at me, you don’t see a victim,” McGee-Stafford said. “You don’t see someone that deals with something just because of the role that I occupy. You think of professional athletes as superheroes. When you see them being very open and honest about their struggles with mental health, I think it makes it easier for people to confront that in their own lives.”
When asked to give a breakdown of her mental health history, McGee-Stafford offers a synopsis in the concise, practiced manner of someone who’s told her story a thousand times. It’s clear that while she’s happy to share what she went through; it may never be effortless to talk about.
“I grew up in an abusive household,” McGee-Stafford said. “I was depressed most of my life. I tried to commit suicide three times before the age of 17. It culminated with me being hospitalized the first two weeks of my junior year of high school. It didn’t really get better after that.
“I went to college and finally got the mental health services that I couldn’t afford and didn’t really have access to growing up. That helped me a ton and it also helped me find my life purpose, which I believe is to use this platform to talk about mental health and sexual abuse and sexual violence.”
While in college at the University of Texas, McGee-Stafford started performing poetry — the poetry that she’d been turning to as catharsis since middle school. After her sophomore year, she went to a competition and performed a poem about her abuse. Longhorn Network, which is owned by ESPN, asked if she’d be willing to tell her story on video. Thinking nothing of it, McGee-Stafford said yes.
After that, everything changed.
The video was picked up by the main ESPN network and turned into a SportsCenter feature. Suddenly, McGee-Stafford’s story was being shared across the country. It was then that she learned how impactful being open about her mental health journey and sharing her story could be.
Since then, McGee-Stafford has made it her mission to help others by being open about her own struggles and she uses her platform as a professional basketball player to do so.
“I’m very aware of the privilege I have of being a professional athlete,” McGee-Stafford said. “I get to speak about these things, but in everyday, 9-to-5 America, you may not be able to do that for fear of losing your job or being ostracized or whatever the case may be. I feel like it’s a disservice to people to not do the best I can with the platform I’m given.”
The work isn’t always easy. McGee-Stafford’s most personal traumas are all over the Internet for the whole world to see, and that can be uncomfortable for her at times.
But every time she thinks about pulling back on how open she is, something will happen that reminds her how important it is to keep going.
“As soon as I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m good on doing this,’ I’ll meet somebody that’s like, ‘Yo, you’ve told my life story and I’ve never been able to tell somebody,’” McGee-Stafford said. “Or, ‘Oh, you said this. I’m going to tell my friend. She’s been struggling with depression.’ It’s little moments like that that remind me that the work I’m doing is so much bigger than my ego or how I want to be seen.”
McGee-Stafford’s main goal is to make conversations about mental health normal and accessible. Her nonprofit, the Hoops and Hope Foundation, focuses on having family-friendly conversations about sexual violence and mental health. She wants kids to grow up knowing that it’s normal and okay to talk about your metal health and issues that you’re going through.
Mental health is something that people often think about in the context of mental illness, and through her work to normalize conversations about mental health, McGee-Stafford hopes to change that perception.
“We kind of think of mental illness as one in five people deal with mental illness,” McGee-Stafford said. “But in reality, five in five of us have mental health. The spectrum of how often we have to take care of it or deal with it varies, but we all have mental health.”