“If I give 100 percent, that’s good enough,” McGee-Stafford says. “It really doesn’t matter what other people expect me to do, because I’m doing this for me.”

Imani McGee-Stafford

Credit: ESPN

From January 17 to 19, The University of Texas at Austin hosted the fourth annual Black Student-Athlete Summit, where a diverse cohort of presenters and participants discussed the challenges and prospects of black student-athletes.

While topics ran the gamut from post-Kaepernick activism to professional development, sessions on health and wellness made up a considerable chunk of the program—and for good reason. Left unchecked, the intensity of collegiate sports can pose serious mental health consequences for student-athletes.

This week’s podcast guest, Imani McGee-Stafford, attended The University of Texas at Austin on a basketball scholarship before taking her talents to the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. After delivering a keynote address at the Summit, she spoke with Into the Fold about her personal mental health journey.

The Full Identity of the Student-Athlete

For McGee-Stafford, who graduated in 2016, college days are just barely a thing of the past. While she speaks highly of her alma mater and the opportunities it gave her, she knows all too well the costs that less fortunate student-athletes must pay.

For some, the price includes their rightful claim to an identity beyond their sport—and with that, their ability to envision and effect a future outside it. “Too many times we failed the black student-athlete by only caring about what they do on the field, or the court, or the pool—whatever it may be,” McGee-Stafford says.

“Once they enter the real world, they’re not equipped with the tools necessary to survive,” she continues. “They’ve been an athlete for four years. Nobody has taken the time to nurture the other parts of their identity.”

What McGee-Stafford calls the “full identity” of the black student-athlete runs parallel to a principle aim of mental health recovery programs: to nourish the complex totality of experience and environment that constitutes individual well-being.

Too often, there are parts of that whole that remain unrecognized or mistreated—sometimes for years. McGee-Stafford grew up in an abusive household and turned to drugs to cope with the resulting depression, nearly losing her scholarship in the process.

It took the support of a high school coach to pivot McGee-Stafford away from a downhill path and into her university basketball career. “When I got [to UT Austin], I received the mental health services I needed my entire life,” she says. “Without any repercussions, without any consequences, without any stigma attached to it.”

Finding Strength on Your Own Terms

Basketball wasn’t the only interest that McGee-Stafford pursued in college. Slam poetry and spoken word soon found their way into her life. “It gave me a voice I didn’t know I needed—didn’t know I had, for that matter,” she says. “It’s definitely been a very positive coping mechanism for me.”

Her other forms of coping now stem from a powerful sense of self-awareness. “I know myself well enough to know when I need to ask for extra help,” she says. “When I’m severely depressed, I can tell myself and see my triggers now—which I wasn’t always able to do.”

True self-worth can be hard to come by when ruthless competition and advancement are the order of the day—something student-athletes know a thing or two about. However, the bleak narrative of inadequacy and failure that harsh superiors, audiences and other critics help propagate isn’t the only one out there. People like McGee-Stafford are making sure of it.

Through her sharp prose and smart plays, this pro is showing us that recovery is possible—and that a resilient mindset is powerful. “We definitely have to tell stories of triumph and stories of success, as opposed to the same old ‘woe is me’ story,” McGee-Stafford says. “Most of us get through it, and we get through it positively.”

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