How This Track Olympian Overcame Mental Illness

appearance by Brigetta Barrett; edited by Jesse Rindner; produced by Jessica Chou.
On Her Turf, powered by NBC Sports and Refinery29, empowers female athletes both on and off the field. In the video above, Olympic track star Brigetta Barrett shares her story on overcoming mental health struggles and her thoughts on racial injustice.
Imagine you're an athlete, a star high jumper who's just won a silver medal at the Olympic Games, the first US woman to medal in high jump since 1988. You should feel giddy, thrilled, overwhelmed, excited, proud. As you stand on the winner's podium, silver medal draped around your neck, the national anthem begins to play, tears well in your eyes. This is the moment you've been working toward for years. But what if you don’t feel a thrill or excitement or even joy? What if, instead, you are overcome with a deep, dark sense of despair? That is what winning silver at the 2012 London Olympic games was like for Brigetta Barrett, a moment of such heartache and despondency she felt certain the whole world could tell. And it was all because of depression. Depression had stolen the most epic moment of Brigetta's young life.
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Born in the Bronx, Brigetta Barrett was a fighter from the start. The NYC housing projects were a difficult place to grow up. With few role models, Brigetta felt very alone. Life at home was tough, too. Food was scarce, her older sister often beat her. Brigetta's mom, generally an effusive personality, would disappear behind a locked bedroom door for days at a time. At the tender age of six, Brigetta was placed in foster care. To this day she can recall being torn from her mother's arms screaming and crying. It took a year, but one day mom came to collect her and her sister. But Brigetta's joy was short-lived. Stopping at an aunt's on the way home, Brigetta can distinctly recall running to find her mother only to learn she had disappeared without so much as a good-bye. The sense of abandonment overwhelmed her. After that, Brigetta's life became one of bouncing from relative to relative, sometimes with mom, sometimes not. Many nights she cried herself to sleep, alone and afraid. But she was resilient, brave and determined to survive, so she found a way.
"Everybody has bad things that happen to them, or baggage they have to deal with, it’s what creates character," Brigetta can say now.
First, she learned the patterns of the local church food pantries. She and her sister would grab backpacks and travel from one church to another loading up as much as they were allowed to carry and dragging it home to stock the barren cupboards. Brigetta also made friends with the neighborhood kids, knowing which moms consistently invited the whole gang in for a sandwich at lunch time. If life was a question of hustle, Brigetta was gonna make it.
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But it was sports that provided a true ray of hope.
"My only option was to move forward, so I had to find a way to cope. Athletics was the way out."
Her tall, long-limbed body, often a target for bullies when she was young, was built for success on the track. But, tough as she was, running was hard and Brigetta did not love it. Day after day she'd train, running the 400 over and over again and wondering why on earth she kept at it. Finally, she'd had enough. "I'm not coming back," she whispered to herself as she walked off the track one hot afternoon. But her coach called after her, "See you Monday." And that one line brought her back the next week. Not long after, she took note of the other athletes. Who were those kids over there in the middle of the track running and jumping? "Those are the high jumpers," her coach said. Brigetta asked if she might give it a try. The coach agreed and a passion was born. Brigetta gave up running for the thrill of the "up-and-over."
From there, Brigetta went on to become a two-time Texas state champion in the high jump, winning a scholarship to University of Arizona. While at Arizona, she won the NCAA indoor/outdoor championship three years in a row, she was the World University Games champion in 2011, won the USA Outdoor championship twice, took silver in the 2012 London Olympic Games and silver again in the 2013 World Outdoor Championships. In 2014, she won the USA Outdoor bronze medal. But through it all, Brigetta was plagued by depression.
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"As athletes, we learn how to embrace the pain," she says.
But being an Olympic medal winner came with a profound sense of responsibility for Brigetta, one she took very seriously. Add to it that her return to the U.S. after the Olympics coincided with the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Being a Black athlete in a country divided had huge significance. Brigetta felt the weight of that responsibility acutely.
It was right about then that the walls she'd so carefully constructed to hold her pain in check began to crumble. She couldn’t sleep. Always one to take pride in arriving early, she was now missing whole practice sessions. The guilt weighed heavily as she shirked her commitments. Insomnia became her new normal. Exhausted and desperate, she'd stare at the ceiling while her mind raced, cycling through every heartbreaking thing in her life. When she did make it to practice, her performance was subpar. Brigetta was frantic. Athletics had always been her way to overcome life's challenges. Training and competition had taught her how to use her mind to keep moving forward, but the depression was breaking that down.
"It took away my ability to use my mental strength to overcome difficulty," she recalls. "I couldn't outrun the depression."
It was then her trainer suggested she get evaluated, but that proved a hurdle for Brigetta, as well. Raised in the tradition of strong, Black, Christian women, Brigetta had been taught: "You don’t need a therapist, you need to pray."
Eventually the day came when Brigetta had run out of her own answers. She decided to seek help. The diagnosis came back: manic depression. The same diagnosis that her mother had received years before. This sent Brigetta into a period of heavy denial. Having worked so hard to break free, how could she possibly be a victim of the same condition that plagued her mother? She accepted the doctor's prescriptions, a sleeping pill and a mood stabilizer, but opted to take only the sleeping pill. The mood stabilizer she kept capped on the shelf.
This was the beginning of Brigetta’s journey toward managing her manic depression. For the rest of Brigetta’s story check out her interview at On Her Turf.
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