Chad Williams was in a dark place. He cut himself. He burned himself. He thought of ending his life.
Now, the Estrella Foothills (Goodyear, Ariz.) assistant basketball coach wants to help prevent others from harming themselves.
He feels sharing his story might help guide them out of the darkness.
On Thursday night, Williams is spearheading Estrella Foothills’ first “Mental Health Awareness Night,” when the boys basketball team hosts Buckeye Youngker.
“Mind matters” T-shirts will be worn by coaches, players, cheerleaders and student-council members. More than 200 shirts were donated by NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s Project375 mental health advocacy group to help raise awareness and not be afraid to talk about their troubles.
“Our message is for students and people attending the game that it is OK to talk about mental health and that you’re not alone,” Williams said. “Student body council is making signs of hope and encouragement.”
Williams said that Erin Callinan, who wrote the book, “Beautifully Bipolar,” will be in attendance and handing out resource material to students and fans. The hope is to make this an annual event at Estrella Foothills.
“Puts things in perspective,” head coach Rich Gutwein said. “Wins and losses pale in comparison.”
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five children, ages 13 to 18, experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their lives.
Marshall’s foundation, Williams said, “helped inspired me to share my story with the hope of helping at least one person.”
— EFHS Basketball (@EFHSBasketball) January 21, 2019
First, Williams, 36, had to get out of a hole that was devouring him from his junior year in high school in Washington to his college basketball career at Seattle Pacific in the mid-2000s and through most of his 20s.
“It started in high school after my grandfather passed away,” Williams said. “I went into a depression. He and I were very close. He was a father figure.
“I went to my family, my family doctor. He prescribed me anti-depressants. At the time, we just thought it was situational depression. But this type of behavior went into college and my late 20s.”
Williams said he was cutting himself with a knife off and on for 15 years.
“The last one, I took a lighter and burned myself,” Williams said. “It’s a coping mechanism, and it’s not a good one, obviously.
“Afterwards, there’s a sense of relief. If you look into it, you get a stimulant that is a high. Then you have guilt. I knew better.”
When he began coaching high school basketball in the West Valley about four years ago, a player asked him about a scar on his arm. He realized then he needed to be open to help others who might be in need.
He opened up to Gutwein first.
“I’m really proud of Chad,” Gutwein said. “I do think it’s important on our campus to let kids know that they’re not dealing with things alone.
“Hopefully, this will help kids make a step to what is a serious issue.”
Williams said the last time he felt he needed to harm himself was June 2012. He was 29 and fell into a deep depression after undergoing a second ankle surgery. He called it the “lowest of lows.”
He went to a psychiatrist who changed his medication.
At the same time, he looked up stories on famous athletes with mental illness. Marshall’s story about how he being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011 when he was a member of the Miami Dolphins popped up.
Williams no longer felt alone.
“You feel like the only person in the world who has this, who is dealing with this,” Williams said. “It humanized it with me. It showed me it can happen to anybody with any kind of mental illness.”
In a 2017 story for The Players Tribune called “The Stigma,” Marshall wrote:
When I first heard the term “mental health,” the first thing that came to mind was mental toughness. Masking pain. Hiding it. Keeping it inside. That had been embedded in me since I was a kid. Never show weakness. Suck it up. Play through it. Live through it.
Now, I realize that mental health means the total opposite.
I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2011, which is why I was in the outpatient program at McLean. I remember the doctors there gave me a pamphlet on BPD, explaining the signs and symptoms, and I started highlighting the things I had been feeling. By the time I was done, the whole damn pamphlet was yellow.
Sports help mask what might be troubling an athlete inside. Williams wants kids to know his door is open. There is nothing too big that can’t be overcome.
“Each person fights a different battle that you don’t see on the outside,” Williams said. “We just want kids, and students and even family member, to know that it’s OK to talk about mental health.
“There is a stigma still to it. But I think the stigma has eased up a little bit. And there is help out there.”