August 14, 2020 

Natalie Achonwa wants more people talking about mental health

The Fever center discusses the emotional toll of playing in the WNBA bubble

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Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa (11) before the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 28, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Natalie Achonwa sighed on Thursday night, appearing uneasy while speaking to the media on Zoom.

Her Indiana Fever had just defeated the New York Liberty, 86-79, to improve to 4-5 on the season. Achonwa played a critical part in the win, turning in a season-high eight points to go with six rebounds off the bench. She was playing in her second game since returning from a hamstring injury that kept her sidelined for nearly two weeks.

Though Achonwa is still recovering from her ailment — Fever Coach Marianne Stanley says she’s still “banged up” — it wasn’t physical fatigue that was bothering Achonwa after the game. Rather, it was concerned regarding the topic of mental health, specifically the anniversary of Michelle Cusseaux’s death.

On August 14, 2014, police shot Cusseaux in her own home after they arrived to transport her to a mental health facility. The 50-year-old Cusseaux was renting an apartment in Phoenix, and her death subsequently sparked discussion and reform surrounding the ways that police interact with those who are mentally ill.

“To know that a black woman reached out for help, or somebody reached out for health for her, and she was murdered in her home,” Achonwa said. “That was heavy on me today, it gave me a little more fight to want to push through anything that I was going through.”

Achonwa, a strong advocate for the mental health community, acknowledged that mental health — and the stigma surrounding it — is a topic that doesn’t receive enough attention in professional sports. She says the unique situation and season for the players, in which they’re restricted to a basketball-centric environment for over two months, is even more conducive to a suboptimal mental state.

“It’s more than half the battle of being here,” said Achonwa. “It’s who can stay mentally engaged, mentally sharp, healthy throughout this time in an alternate environment. It’s a big piece, and I think we need to talk about it more. We need to continue the conversation, to elevate the conversation… to take away the stigma from it.”

Layshia Clarendon, a point guard for the New York Liberty and first vice president of the WNBA Players’ Association, echoed Achonwa’s words on Twitter earlier this week. They acknowledged the difficulty of establishing a work-life balance in the “wubble,” and the toll that such a struggle takes on a player’s mental health.

Players and coaches have been outspoken about how the condensed schedule severely limits practice and recovery time. The Fever finished their win against the Liberty at approximately 8 p.m. EST, and play on Saturday at 2 p.m. A more alarming example, the Las Vegas Aces finished their game on Thursday around 11 p.m. EST. They play next on Saturday at noon EST, just 37 hours later.

“Literally, we eat, sleep and watch film and play basketball,” said Achonwa. “It’s a cycle over and over. I think the lack of time to yourself can be hard.”

Achonwa said that she takes advantage of a personal mental health professional in Indianapolis and that the Fever provides one for the players when they’re in the market. The WNBA makes two mental health professionals available to any players that need them and has also arranged outdoor excursions for teams, such as beach days, fishing trips, and sunset boat rides.

“Those are important too, to be able to have outlets for athletes to take their minds off of basketball,” Achonwa said. They’re providing opportunities for players to have those releases.”

Everybody participating in the season is restricted to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Living with teammates and close to other teams may facilitate a high level of camaraderie, but Achonwa stressed the importance of finding time to distance herself from the game and the league.

“Every night when I go home, I like to watch some of the games that are on TV but after a certain point, it’s off for me,” she said. “It’s FaceTime with family, it’s reading a book, it’s getting in a cold tub… it’s time for myself to relax, to think about something other than basketball, other than competing at the highest level.

“Obsession is good to a certain point, but if it’s something that takes over your entire life where you can only operate on the court, it’s toxic,” said Achonwa

With just over a third of the regular season completed, the WNBA community must continue to find ways to navigate the “wubble” — an unprecedented experience for players, their families, coaches, and referees alike — and win, all while staying both physically and mentally healthy.

Written by Ben Rosof

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