11/18/2014

At their best, sports can serve as platforms for social change.

Whether it’s racial equality, gender rights, or sexual orientation, the games have often led the United States rather than drag behind them. Eve when negative story lines dominate the front pages, America listens and learns. Ray Rice knocked out his fiance in a horrific act, but the incident combined with the National Football League’s incompetence in punishing it brought domestic violence–a hushed subject for far too long–to the forefront of nearly every conversation.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.52.17 AM

When it comes to depression and mental health issues, however, sports can inspire real change. Even the rich and famous suffer the same demons that plague the average citizens. That realization is an important one to grasp in a field that lacks the attention it deserves. Suicide is a tragic thing and it shouldn’t take a celebrity’s death to let us know that.

And so, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating, or even over-celebrating, players who put their names out there as faces of depression. When they win at their respective sport, it’s all the more powerful. They don’t just play opponents or, in golf’s case, a course. They’re constantly battling themselves as well.

Christina Kim is the perfect spokesperson for mental illness in that she defies the stereotype. Kim, a longtime LPGA professional, has a reputation as the tour’s clown. She’s vibrant, funny, enthusiastic, and above all cheerful. She plays with a zest for the game that makes her one of women’s golf’s most popular players.

But in 2012 she opened up about her inner battles with depression. In an article appropriately titled “Tears of a Clown,” Golf Digest writer Stina Sternberg profiled Kim and her mental health struggles. One passage in particular exposes Kim’s horrors. After a disappointing 2012 season, the then 28-year-old was forced into Q-School to retain her LPGA Tour card. It was all too much for her:

Panic set in as she remembered how much she hates Daytona Beach, Fla., and wondered how she would ever shoot five rounds under par in a qualifying tournament given the way she had been playing. With the emotional snowball in full throttle, Kim drove through tears that turned into sobs, then loud, piercing screams.

It was a pain so deep it felt like a limb had been amputated. She scared herself and pulled off the road. There, on the side of the Interstate at 2 in the morning on Sept. 24, Christina Kim let out two years of despair that she had refused to acknowledge. When she finally got home, she locked herself in her bedroom and remained there for almost three days without turning on a light.

It’s hard to imagine someone as bubbly as Kim in such despair. But it humanizes her in a way and in turn humanizes the disease.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.16.09 AM

On Sunday, Kim won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, her first victory in nine years.

“This is the greatest win in my life,” she said afterwards. “Without a doubt.”

Her good friend Michelle Wie was in tears following the round. Kim’s boyfriend Duncan French, Wie’s caddie, triumphantly embraced her.

A year ago, Steven Bowditch provided one of the best stories of the season when he won at the Valero Texas Open. He wore green on Sunday to raise awareness for mental health issues.

The story reminds us of another name in the sport, one Curtis Strange, who’s also had bouts with depression.

Kim’s victory only helps the cause, especially considering what the LPGA experienced four years back. Erica Blasberg, whose good looks and loads of talent made her an immediate star, took her own life at 25. She has long been the tragic face of depression. Kim, on the other hand, plays in Blasberg’s memory whether she acknowledges it or not. It’s not easy, but you can win the fight.

A golf win is a small thing in life, but it can mean something.