Today’s guest columnist is Ivan Tchatchouwo, co-founder and CEO of The Zone, a company that provides an online mental wellness platform for athletes.
Black athletes have been speaking up about their mental health, making for a watershed period in professional sports. The Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan, a four-time NBA All-Star, has been at the forefront of this movement, speaking candidly about his depression since 2018. Recently, he opened up to Draymond Green on Green’s podcast. “Nobody ever talks about the situation we’ve all had,” DeRozan said. “For one, we come into the league with so much trauma that we don’t even identify with from our childhood. But we suppress it and forget about it so easily, because all of a sudden now we’re rich.”
He added that throughout life, “we’re taught to be tough, power through everything—f— all that stuff you are going through, you gotta get through this s—. Ain’t no crying, you better suck it up and keep going.”
This is a valuable message. As I’ve learned, admitting to having mental health challenges—and acknowledging you’re not invincible—is crucial in helping athletes, and especially black male athletes, make the transition into productive careers when the cheering stops.
But for most of my life I was afraid to do that, and I know that I was far from alone.
Arriving in America as a Cameroonian immigrant at the age of 6 was a major culture shock. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak English, and I barely knew myself. My family settled down in the Soundview section of the Bronx and made a home for ourselves in whatever ways we could. Growing up as a middle-class kid in Soundview, I was exposed to the realities of poverty and what it forces people to do at a young age. While I myself never suffered personally, I was constantly surrounded by peers who didn’t have as much. For so many, doing well in school wasn’t important; sports always took precedence. Sports was their ticket out of Soundview, and they were products of their environment.
Shaped by my surroundings and wanting to achieve recognition from my peers, I too turned to sports. I became obsessed with basketball, playing all day at local courts, and earning a spot on a prestigious Catholic high school league team. Basketball gave me an escape from the dangers of my reality and offered a space to express myself. Off the court, we were surrounded by violence, gangs and drugs, but on the court the world was anything I wanted it to be. I dreamed of a better life, and basketball was going to get me there. I earned a scholarship to play at a Division II program, and successfully completed my undergraduate degree.
What I realized only later was that most of us never leave Soundview—at least not mentally. I worked hard to make my dreams a reality, and unlike my peers, I had family and some money to lean on. I saw the stressors affecting others on a day-to-day basis, and how they saw basketball as their entire life. For the first time in my life I realized my friends needed help, and no one was there for them.
Everything changed for me when I had my first severe injury. I dislocated my patella for the third time in my career, ending my junior season in college. I was not only injured, but heartbroken. Everything I had worked for seemed to be slipping off the table. Without basketball I didn’t feel like myself. It was around this time that I began to suffer from depression, and a greater identity crisis. Who was I if I wasn’t playing basketball? For all my life, the game was how I dealt with trauma, and now I was locked in my room and immobile.
Coming from my neighborhood and an African household meant I never shared my feelings; instead I internalized everything. I had lost my outlet for physical activity and emotional expression, and I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. I had no one telling me to reach out for help, and I was embarrassed to ask questions. I was spiraling out of control.
It didn’t have to be this way. I internalized so much guilt and shame because I had no positive role models in my community when it came to mental health. As a black man growing up in a tough neighborhood, you are not told to listen to your feelings and spend time working on self-care. This problem seeps into the highest levels of our society, and is particularly visible in professional sports like basketball and football, where 55% of athletes are black. For too long coaches and role models have prioritized toughness over vulnerability, resulting in a tremendous toll on athletes of all ages.
Outspoken black athletes are finally shining a light on the issue. It has been amazing hearing the likes of DeRozan and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott opening up the conversation around mental health over the past year. Starting these conversations will help black children to see their role models as not only tough, but vulnerable and able to discuss their feelings. We have to get across the message that vulnerability is toughness. By having big voices speak out, we can begin to shift the reputation of mental healthcare from weak to cool, and help break the stigma.
Awareness is beneficial but can only go so far; I knew I wanted to act and show young people why mental health is important. I eventually landed on technology as a tool to help achieve this goal, co-founding The Zone, a tech platform that gives athletes the tools they need to address their mental health. Athletes can learn positive coping techniques, communicate with therapists, and have access to personalized wellness in their pockets. Any of these tools would have been game-changers for me growing up, and I’m proud to say that we are contributing to a generation of athletes who will feel confident to speak about their feelings.
Black athletes speaking up is a positive step toward healing our broken communities, but only time and continual effort will fully repair them. These star players can act as messengers with great influence, but it takes everyone working as a team to alleviate the symptoms of this global problem. We must come together to help change the conversation—and then people’s lives, one person at a time.
Before founding The Zone, Tchatchouwo earned a bachelor’s degree from Concordia College and a master’s in physiology from Columbia University.