Exclusive: Olympian Raven Saunders Comes Out of the Dark to Raise Awareness, Destigmatize Mental Health

Raven Saunders in “Out the Dark.”
Raven Saunders in “Out the Dark.”
Screenshot: Out the Dark

Content warning: The following article discusses mental illness and SI.

With Mental Health Awareness Month officially underway, Well Beings, a major media campaign that works to demystify and de-stigmatize our physical and mental health through storytelling, has partnered with The Root to premiere its new web series, Out of the Dark.

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This three-part web series showcases personal stories from three of the most influential youth activists in the mental health space: NotOK app creator Hannah Lucas, poet AKeem Rollins, and Olympic shot putter and discus thrower Raven Saunders. As they each take on the fundamental question, “How do you define mental toughness?” they reveal the struggles each of them have overcome, the impact of their work, and their continued mental health journeys.

To coincide with the first of Out of the Dark’s monthly releases, Saunders spoke to The Root about the myriad obstacles she’s faced as an Olympic athlete and the steps she’s taken to preserve her peace of mind throughout this pandemic.

In discussing her decision to be transparent about her mental health journey, Saunders pointed to promising Georgia Tech football recruit Bryce Gowdy. Last January, mere days before the talented 17-year-old was set to begin his life as a collegiate athlete, he completed suicide.

“I believe I was coming back around to my first indoor season and I remember reading that story,” she said. “I believe it was a top player recruited by Georgia Tech, but he ended up committing suicide before he ended up being able to go off to school. And it was because he was battling with the fact of leaving his family, who was homeless and having all these brothers and sisters and things like that, not being able to take the pressures of it all.”

She continued, “For me personally, I understood my challenges as a student-athlete, how hard things were for me, and how dark things had gotten. And I just figured that if I could share my story with somebody that it could possibly get one other student-athlete that may have been in a situation like his, give them some kind of hope or some kind of a reason or something to keep pushing forward.”

In identifying as both Black and queer, the 24-year-old pointed to her roots in Charleston, S.C., for sowing seeds that would eventually blossom into depressive episodes.

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“I just remember certain things,” she began. “‘You’re going to hell because you’re gay’, just hearing all these things growing up. And for me personally, I hear whatever. People try to say, ‘Sticks and stones break my bones, but words may never ever hurt.’ That’s not really true. A lot of times, it’s hard. You kind of got to use those negative things to your benefit at times to push you forward. Yes, I’m a Black gay female athlete, but that’s not all that I am.”

As Saunders prepares for the Tokyo Olympics, that experience has had more than its fair share of adversity as well. Last March, the Olympics were postponed until this summer, and as if that wasn’t a tremendous burden to carry, that delay has also been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

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The entire ordeal has left a profound impact on Saunders and has caused her to be more proactive than ever before in regards to both protecting and preserving her mental health.

“Oh, it’s definitely been a whirlwind, I’m not even going to lie,” she said. “I’ve probably had two or three depressive episodes since COVID began. In the beginning, it was more so like, ‘All right, cool. Day-to-day.’ But then after the first month, it’s like, ‘All right, when are things going to get back to normal?’ 2020 was supposed to be my comeback season. And then you get geared up, you get ready to go, and then all of it’s halted. So you go through a phase of questioning. Like, ‘Dang, man. What could have happened?’ Or uncertainty. And then you go through the phase of anger, like, ‘Damn when will things get back to normal?’”

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As far as tools that have helped her during this time, Saunders is a big fan of meditation and checking in with her friends to keep them abreast of her status. She also stressed the importance of therapy.

“Meditation allows for you to be one with yourself and kind of really sit back and get a chance to look at life and just be at peace for a little bit. Give you a chance to clear your mind,” she said. “Another thing that I do too, especially when I notice that I’m going into my depression is reaching out to all the people that I have that are close to my circle. I reach out to let them know, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at. This is what I’m feeling.’

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By being so forthcoming about her journey, hopefully, Saunders is able to help others struggling during this time to come Out of the Dark as well.

“The thing that I would like people to understand is that no matter how low you get or how close to the ground you feel, remember: it’s only up,” she said. “Keep fighting. When you get to the other side of that you just feel so much of a relief. You feel that all the things and obstacles that life has put you through, you’re here for a reason. You found your purpose. You have a reason to keep going. You have to keep fighting for that every single day.”

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If there’s anyone who is a testament to that mindset, it’s Saunders.

We at The Root wish her the best this summer in Tokyo, and you can watch the premiere of Out of the Dark below.

If you or anyone you know needs mental health support, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline at 800-950-NAMI. If experiencing a crisis, text “NAMI” to 741741.

Menace to supremacy. Founder of Extraordinary Ideas and co-host and producer of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. Impatiently waiting for y'all to stop putting sugar in grits.

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